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



Challenge-riposte in Mark 15

Socio-Rhetorical Examples

Definition of challenge-riposte.

There are a series of challenge-responses in Mark 15. The united action of the temple hierarchy in handing Jesus over to Pilate is a challenge by the temple leaders to Pilate the Prefect of Jerusalem. Pilate must respond to their challenge in an appropriate manner or he will put the public status of his position in jeopardy. The challenge consists of "entering the space" of Pilate and delivering Jesus to him. Pilate's initial response to the challenge is to interrogate Jesus (15:3). Before the challenge by the temple leaders reaches any definitive conclusion, the narrative depicts "the crowd" presenting a second challenge to Pilate in the context of narration that informs the reader that it was the custom for Pilate to release a prisoner of their choice during the festival. Pilate responds by asking the crowd to choose between Jesus and Barabbas, whom the narrative describes as a murderous insurrectionist (15:7). Pilate embodies honor when he retorts with a question concerning what evil Jesus has done (15:14). Markan narration makes the resistance of Pilate extremely brief, however. In contrast to Luke (23:4), Pilate never asserts that he finds no guilt in Jesus. Markan narration simply asserts that Pilate perceived that the chief priests delivered Jesus to him out of envy (Mark 15:10). It also depicts action of the chief priests to be the cause of the request by the crowd for Pilate to crucify Jesus (15:11). In the end, Pilate responds to the challenges by the temple leaders and the crowd by "pleasing the crowd" through action of flogging Jesus and delivering him to be crucified (15:15).

In the context of the challenges and responses to Pilate by the chief priests and the crowd, Mark 15 presents two challenges to Jesus. The first comes from Pilate when he asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews. Jesus' response "You say so" (15:2) may seem clever or appropriate to the modern reader, but in the terms of Mediterranean challenge-response system, this response does not establish or maintain Jesus' honor in the eyes of Pilate. The same is true of his silence in response to the accusations of the chief priests and the people. This silence leaves Pilate in wonderment. Although the nature of Pilate's wonder is not clear, it is certain that neither Jesus' words nor his silence was "honorable." At the end of the interaction, Pilate initiates actions that reveal the extent to which, within this cultural system, Jesus has been dishonored: crucifixion is among the most dishonorable deaths imaginable. The second challenge to Jesus' honor comes while he hangs on the cross, as people who pass by, chief priests and scribes, issue the mocking challenge that he should come down from the cross (15:30, 32). Again, Jesus is silent in the face of these remarks, a silence which itself communicates how deeply dishonored he is within the Mediterranean system. The failure to respond to such a challenge dishonors him. For the reader who accepts the narrational perspective that Jesus is the Messiah, the challenges are of course ironic. The irony is that, while Jesus is thoroughly dishonored within the challenge-response paradigm of Mediterranean culture, his silent acceptance of his humiliating death demonstrates his obedience to the will of God. For the narrator and the reader who accepts the narrational point of view, the very silence that apparently dishonors Jesus is the source of his greatest honor.


From V. K. Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts, (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), pp. 81-2.

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