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



Recontextualization in Mark 15

Socio-Rhetorical Examples

Definition of recontextualization.

There are two kinds of recontextualization: (a) Recontextualization in attributed speech occurs in John 2:16: And he told those who sold pigeons: "Take these things away; you shall not make my Father's house a house of trade." Zechariah 14:21b reads: And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day. There is no indication in the Gospel of John that the words on Jesus' lips are a paraphrase of a verse from Zechariah. The result, then, is simply recontextualization of the words without any indication that they are from another text.

(b) Recontextualization in narration occurs in Mark 15:24:

And they crucify him
and they divide his garment,
casting lots for them who would take what.

The biblical text it recontextualizes contains the following wording:

They divided my garments among themselves,
and for my outer garment they cast lots (Ps. 22:19 [LXX: 21:19]).

The Markan recitation recontextualizes wording from the psalm, revising the tense and syntax to create a three-step statement out of parallel members (parallelismus membrorum; Robbins 1992b:1176-77). The Markan text gives no indication that these words exist anywhere else in a written text. This form of writing, which significantly duplicates parts of words in a new form of sentence or clause, is characteristic of both oral and written composition in a rhetorical culture (Robbins 1991b). Significant recontextualization of wording from Psalm 22 occurs not only in Mark 15:24 but also in Mark 15:29-32, 34.

Another instance of recontextualization occurs in Mark 15 and provides the structure and topics for the scene of the ridicule of Jesus while he hangs on the cross (15:25-32). In this instance, language from Psalm 22:7-9 is recontextualized in an "expanded chreia" recounting taunting of Jesus while he hangs on the cross. The term "expansion" as used here comes from Theon's Progymnasmata (exercise 5 above). An expanded chreia amplifies either the description of the situation or the saying, or both (Robbins 1988b: 17-19; 1993b: xiii-xiv; 1994a: 159-161; Mack and Robbins: 17-22). Mark 15:25-32 amplifies both the description of the setting, and it creates multiple sayings. The verses that Mark 15:25-32 recontextualizes from the Old Testament read as follows:

But I am a worm and not a man,
a reproach of men and scorn of the people;
all who have observed me sneered at me,
they spoke with their lips, they wagged their head,
"He hoped in the Lord, let him rescue him;
let him save him, because he wants him." (Psalm 22:7-9)

Markan narration expands these verses by dividing "all who have observed me" (Ps. 22:8) into three groups:

  1. ones passing by;
  2. chief priests with the scribes;
  3. ones crucified with him.

With this division, Markan discourse expands the discourse of the Psalm into a three-part scene.

First, the account of those passing by recontextualizes a number of words from Psalm 22:8 and the word "save" from 22:9:

And those who passed by derided him
wagging their heads
and saying,

  1. "Aha, he who destroys the temple
    and builds it in three days;
  2. save yourself;
  3. come down from the cross." (Mark 15:29-30)

Second, the account of the chief priests and the scribes includes a second moment of speech which makes additional statements about being saved:

So also the chief priests mocked him to one another with the scribes, saying,

  1. "Others he saved;
    himself he cannot save." (Mark 15:31)

Third, a narrational comment about those being crucified with Jesus reformulates the statement about the sufferer as "a reproach of men" (Psalm 22:7):

And those who were crucified with him reproached him. (Mark 15:32)

This expansion of Psalm 22:7-9 creates the middle section of the Markan account of the crucifixion.

The third instance of intertexture creates the speech in Jesus' mouth in the scene of his crying out and death (15:33-39). In this instance, Markan discourse creates a chreia directly out of Psalm 22:1:

And at the ninth hour Jesus called out with a loud sound,
"Eloi, Eloi lema sabachthani?"
which is translated, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." (Mark 15:34)

This time an entire line of Psalm 22 is recontextualized as speech of Jesus himself. In Theon's terms (Hock and O'Neil), this is a chreia with a "commentary" that provides a translation of the Aramaic sounds.

Wording from three portions of Psalm 22 (22:18-19, 7-9, 1) have now become part of the account of the crucifixion of Jesus. Language that previously rehearsed the plight of a suffering righteous one is now recontextualized in the crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth.


From V. K. Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts, (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), p. 48-50.

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