Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

Emory Studies in Early Christianity

Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity

Religious Sites in Atlanta

Emory Department of Religion

Emory Graduate Division of Religion



Cultural intertexture in Mark 15

Socio-Rhetorical Examples

Definition of cultural intertexture.

Let us look for cultural intertexture in Mark 15. Since there are multiple cultural dimensions in any substantive text, it is not possible to pursue anything that approaches a comprehensive survey. We will, therefore, limit ourselves to an interesting example. A short span of text in Dio Chrysostom exhibits an intriguing aspect of cultural intertexture. The text reads as follows:

They [the Persians at the Sacian festival] take one of their prisoners who has been condemned to death, set him on the king's throne, give him the royal apparel, and permit him to give orders, to drink and carouse, and to dally with the royal concubines during those days, and no one prevents his doing anything he pleases. After that they strip and scourge him and then hang him" (Dio 4.67). If [the prisoner] understands [the meaning of the action], he probably breaks out into wailing and refuses to go along without protesting..." (Dio 4.69).

The close relation between the Markan scenes and the actions in the ritual of the Sacian festival in the Mediterranean east suggests the interaction of two major cultural intertextures in the Markan account. Not only is the Markan crucifixion a manifestation of the experiences of a suffering righteous one according to Jewish tradition; it is a manifestation of a Mediterranean cultural ritual in which the humiliation of a prisoner mocks the role and activities of a king. The Markan account of the crucifixion of Jesus, which may be the earliest Christian account available to us, is a reconfiguration of Jewish and Mediterranean cultural traditions which distinctively merges the experiences of the final days of the suffering righteous person with the public humiliation of the role and activities of a king. The Messiah of Israel in Christian discourse is neither the traditional sufferer nor the traditional king. The meaning effects of the drama reverberate across cultural boundaries. The Christian Messiah is bicultural or multicultural in his manifestation of personal, social, cultural, and religious attributes. The unusual features of the drama emerge in the role of Barabbas, which provides a distinctive form of irony for the story, and the burial of the corpse, which provides the context for the empty tomb.

The irony, from the perspective of Mediterranean cultural logic, is that those things which are done to Jesus are the things "customarily" done to the one whom an official "releases to the people" at the time of their festival. In the Markan account, the "Son of the Father" (Barabbas) who was a murderous revolutionary was "released" to disappear from the events of history, while one who was "not released" was put through "the customary ritual" of mockery and crucifixion as though he were a released prisoner appropriately being mocked as a king to renew everyone's awareness of the responsibilities of a true king, who is a son of Zeus (Robbins 1992a: 187-191; 1992b: 1172-1175).

It is a remarkable symptom of the crosscultural manifestation of actions and configurations in the Markan account that the sequence of scenes in Mark 15 follow the sequence of the Dio Chrysostom text, and this produces a reversal of the order of scenes in Psalm 22. The oral-scribal intertexture of Psalm 22 does not simply complement the multicultural intertexture of the humiliated, righteous king. Rather, the rhetoric of Psalm 22 is in many ways subservient to the rhetoric of this new cultural configuration. Jesus' cry of desparation and alienation at the last moment of breath is a crosscultural manifestation of the suffering and humiliation of a leader chosen by the gods and the people in the Mediterranean world. The cultural intertexture of the account refigures both Jewish tradition and Hellenistic-Roman tradition. Is Jesus a particular kind of Jewish king or a particular kind of Hellenistic-Roman king? Is Jesus a particular kind of Jewish savior or a particular kind of Hellenistic-Roman savior? The interplay of Jewish and Hellenistic-Roman expectations, actions, and meaning-effects transcends traditional configurations in both cultural contexts. This Markan discourse is a distinctive formulation that challenges other Mediterranean portrayals of a personage who lives an exemplary life and dies an exemplary death for the benefit of humans.


From V. K. Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts, (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), p. 60-2.

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