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

Historical intertexture in Mark 15

Socio-Rhetorical Examples

Definition of historical intertexture.

Since the nature of narrative discourse is to claim to be true "historically," it is important to gain some insight on both the amount of information and the nature of the data available for an assessment of historical intertexture in Mark 15. In other words, there are many assertions in Markan discourse that imply the existence of a historical fact, event, or custom outside of the text, and we need to have a close look at them. One of the keys to historical conclusions is the precise formulation of appropriate questions. An interpreter often can decide how to formulate good questions by ascertaining aspects of the narrative that appear to be plausible or implausible. The following list exhibits some aspects of the historical intertexture of Mark 15:1-46:


(A) Positive evidence outside of Christian sources

(1a) a man named Pilate with political and legal power in Jerusalem (15:1)

(2a) a Sanhedrin in Jerusalem constituted by chief priests, scribes, elders (15:1)

(3a) a place in Jerusalem named Golgotha (15:22)

(B) No evidence outside of Christian sources

(3b) a place named Golgotha as a place of crucifixion (15:22)

(4) an insurrectionist named Barabbas (15:7)

(5) a man named Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus (15:21)

(6) a respected member of the Jerusalem council named Joseph of Arimathea (15:43)


(A) Positive evidence outside of Christian sources

(1b) death of Jesus of Nazareth occurred by crucifixion while Pilate was prefect (15:24)

(B) No evidence outside of Christian sources

(7) splitting of the curtain of the temple from top to bottom (15:38)

(8a) Pilate's releasing of an insurrectionist prisoner at a festival (15:6)

(9a) an insurrection just before Passover on the year of Jesus' death (15:7)

(10a) an inscription of the charge on Jesus' cross (15:26)

(11a) crucifixion of two bandits alongside Jesus (15:27)

(C) Historically implausible

(2b/12) a meeting of the Sanhedrin early in the morning of Passover Day (15:1)

(13) an eclipse of the sun from noon to 3 p.m. on the day of Jesus' crucifixion (15:33)

(14a) wrapping Jesus' corpse in a linen shroud (15:46)


(A) Positive evidence of the custom outside of Christian sources

(8b) releasing a prisoner at the time of a festival (15:6)

(9b) insurrections in Jerusalem in which people were imprisoned

(10b) an inscription of the charge on a cross (15:26)

(11b) crucifixion of more than one person at a time (15:27)

(14b) wrapping a corpse in strips of cloth (not a large linen shroud) (15:46)

(15) laying a corpse in a tomb hewn out of rock and rolling a stone against the opening of the tomb (15:46)

(B) Historically implausible

(8c) a custom of Pilate to release a prisoner each year at the Jewish festival of Passover (15:6)

First (1a,b), no one questions the existence of a man named Pontius Pilate. Historical investigation has yielded extensive evidence that Pontius Pilate was the prefect (praefectus) of Judea from 26 until 37 C.E. with his headquarters in Caesarea Maritima. A Latin inscription discovered in Caesarea in 1961 verifies that his official title was prefect rather than procurator, which is the title Tacitus (Annals 15.44.33), and, in Greek (epitropos), both Philo (Embassy to Gaius 299) and Josephus (Wars 2.169) assigned to him. When Pilate visited Jerusalem, he resided either in the palace of Herod the Great, or perhaps preferably, the fortress of Antonia on the north side of the Temple court. Philo of Alexandria (Embassy to Gaius 38) quotes a letter from Agrippa I to Caligula which describes Pilate as "inflexible, merciless, and obstinate" and gives a catalogue of his crimes and excesses (cf. Josephus, Wars 2.14.8). Pilate had the power to delegate activities to soldiers who were in his charge. Tacitus (Annals 15.44, and perhaps Josephus) record that Jesus was killed while Pilate held his office.

Second (2a,b), there was a Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Possibly it comprised 71 members during the 30s C.E. The high priest served as its president, and heads of the great priestly families (chief priests), scribes, and lay leaders (elders) were members of it (Schürer II.I.163-95). It is highly unlikely that an emergency meeting of the entire Sanhedrin could have been convened early in the morning of Passover Day.

Third (3a,b), Golgotha is known in Jewish legend as the place of the burial of Adam's skull (Taylor:488). The location of Golgotha comes from later Christian sources who identify it in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There is no extra-Christian evidence that it was a place where people were crucified.

Fourth (4), there is no corroborative evidence outside of Christian gospels of an insurrectionist named Barabbas. The name looks suspicious, since it means, in Aramaic, "Son of the Father." On the other hand, the Talmud refers to rabbis with the names of R. Samuel Bar Abba and R. Nathan Bar Abba (Taylor:581).

Fifth (5), there is no evidence of Simon of Cyrene outside of Christian sources. A man named Rufus is mentioned in Romans 16:13. There is no evidence that this Rufus was the son of Simon. It was, in fact, customary for each man to carry his own cross beam (patibulum; Plutarch, De Sera Numinis Vindicta 2.554A; Taylor:587), as John 19:31 presents the account.

Sixth (6), there is no evidence, outside of Christian texts, about Joseph of Arimathea either as a person or as a member of the Jerusalem council.

Seventh (7), there is no corroborative evidence of a split in either the inner or outer curtain of the Jerusalem temple in the early 30s C.E.

Eighth (8a,b,c), there is no record outside of Christian sources that Pilate regularly or ever released a prisoner at the time of the Passover festival or any other festival in the realm of his jurisdiction. Moreover, the accounts of the severity with which he governed suggest that such an act, under any circumstances, would be highly unlikely. There is, on the other hand, evidence that legates and prefects, at times, did release prisoners.

Ninth (9a,b), while there is positive evidence that Passover was a time of concern for Roman prefects, because of the potential for insurrection or general tumult, there is no evidence outside Christian sources for an insurrection prior to Passover during the early 30s C.E. (Taylor:581).

Tenth (10a,b), there is evidence that an inscription of the crime often was placed on a cross above the head of the crucified person (Lane 1974:568: Juvenal, Satires 6.230; Pliny the Younger, Epistles 6.10.3; 9.19.3; Suetonius, Life of Caligula 32; Life of Domitian 10). There is no corroboration of this exact inscription on Jesus' cross outside of Christian sources. Many scholars consider the existence of an inscription to be "solid historical fact" (Lane 1974:568).

Eleventh (11a,b), regularly more than one person was crucified at a time. Therefore, it would be historically plausible that additional people would be crucified along with Jesus. To have two people, one on the right and one on the left, crucified with Jesus looks schematized, however. This phenomenon would appear to derive from a concept of mockery of him as a pseudo-king: both his "righthand" and "lefthand" associates are "bandit revolutionaries."

Twelfth (12), specialists in the legal-political aspects of political leadership in Jerusalem during the second and third decade of the first century consider it highly unlikely that an emergency session of the council and/or sanhedrin could be convened on the morning of Passover day.

Thirteenth (13), an eclipse is impossible at the time of the full moon, which it would have been at the beginning of Passover, as Origen pointed out (Taylor:593). If some phenomenon caused darkness, it would have had to be something like dark clouds.

Fourteenth (14a,b), people were often wrapped in cloth strips before their bodies were placed in tombs, not in a sheet large enough to wrap around the entire body.

Fifteenth (15), bodies of crucified people regularly were left on the cross until birds had picked most of the flesh away. Regularly, also, no one including the family was allowed to take the body down and give it a proper burial. A regular way to give a body a proper burial would be to wash it, wrap it tightly in cloth strips, and lay it on a slab of rock above ground until it decomposed. Then the bones would be put underneath the slab, along with the bones of previous bodies that had decomposed on the slab, so someone else's body could be laid on the slab.

One can see that the discourse in this chapter is replete with historical intertexture. One can also see how historical scholarship could establish dominance over the interpretation of a chapter like this. The chapter raises many fascinating historical issues, and the pursuit of those issues is important, challenging, and fascinating.

From V. K. Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts, (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), p. 65-8.

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