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    NOTESANDOBSERVATIONS

    Why Did the Bystanders Think Jesus

    Called upon Elijah before He Died (Mark15:34-36)? The Markan Position

    Mark F. Whitters

    Eastern Michigan University

    34And in the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi,lema sabachthani," which is translated, "My God, my God, why haveyou forsaken me?" 35When some of the bystanders heard this, theysaid, "See, he is calling Elijah." 36Then one ran off and filled a spongewith sour wine. He put it on a stick and offered it to him to drink,saying, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah comes to take him down."37But Jesus, after emitting a loud cry, expired. 38Then the curtain ofthe temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39When the centurionwho was standing in front of him saw that he had so expired, he said,

    "Truly this man was Son of God."

    The above passage presents the last few hours of Jesus' life as the climax to the

    whole passion narrative.1 The centurion helps to clarify for the reader the true

    identity of Jesus according to the gospel ofMark: he is Son of God and Messiah.Commentators routinely take note of this aspect of the passage. However, the rela

    tionship of the other last events to Markan Christology is often overlooked. In this

    note I will focus on the pericope recounting the last words of Jesus and the reac

    tion of the bystanders who hear them (vv. 34-36). My thesis is that the pericope

    shows that the gospel is rejecting an alternate view about Jesus, one that identifieshim as Elijah. I will argue that among the many names and titles ascribed to Jesus,

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    120 HARVARD THE OLO GIC AL REVIEW

    The consuming motif of Mark 14-15 is the controversy concerning religious

    and political claims Jesus made about his identity and authority. The Sanhdrin

    raises religious charges against Jesus; the Romans raise political charges. Both

    groups imply that Jesus misrepresents his identity. The Sanhdrin charges that

    Jesus was claiming a role in establishing the true and heavenly tabernacle on

    earth (14:55-59),2 but the allegation collapses because of inconsistent testimony.

    The Sanhdrin also charges (vv. 60-65) that Jesus is a religious blasphemer;

    here Jesus' own testimony seals his fate as a false messiah or prophet. The

    Romans present a single charge: Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you king of the Jews?"

    (15:2).3

    After the Roman adjudication of the case, during the process of execution, the

    debate over Jesus' political and religious identity continues. The posting of the

    official charge reads, "The King of the Jews" (15:26). This derisive title is echoed

    in the mockery of the chief priest and scribes: "He saved others; he cannot save

    himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, sothat we may see and believe" (15:31-32). The matter of Jesus' religious preten

    sions brought up before the Sanhdrin has not been entirely dropped, for the (Jewish)

    passersby say, "Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days,

    save yourself, and come down from the cross" (15:29-30). Both groups of derid-ers dare Jesus to come down from the cross. The priests and the scribes also

    mockingly address Jesus by both the religious and the political titles he was judged

    to have wrongfully used, "Messiah" (14:61) and "King" (15:2,9,12,18,26). Only

    after Jesus has expired is the controversy over his identity ultimately resolved by

    the positive statement of the centurion.

    But before the centurion speaks, the gospel of Mark makes a negative state

    ment about Jesus' identity. The account of Jesus' last articulate words (15:34-36)

    reiterates a frequent concern of Mark's gospel, that Jesus notbe identified as Elijah.There is abundant evidence that the narrative audience in the gospel of Mark looked

    upon Jesus as a prophet. The gospel records two discussions about the identity of

    Jesus, one initiated by Herod (6:14-16), the other between Jesus and his disciples

    (8:27-30). In both cases the public speculates that Jesus is Elijah or one of the

    prophets. In both cases the narrator casts a dark shadow on such speculation by

    immediately bringing up suffering and martyrdom (6:17-29; 8:31-34; cf. 9:9-

    13). While the public may identify Jesus as a prophet like Elijah, and Jesus does

    consciously draw upon the prophetic authority (6:4; cf. 11:27-33), ultimately the

    gospel of Mark does not find this identity satisfactory. For example, the word

    "prophet" occurs only four times to describe Jesus' identity and ministry (6:4 15;

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    MARKWHITTERS 121

    and possibly 8:28; 11:32), and of these, only once is the word on Jesus' lips. Though

    all four gospels share the perspective that Jesus had some prophetic identity, Mark's

    gospel emphasizes this theme the least.4

    Instead, the gospel of Mark views John the Baptist as the one to fulfill the role

    of prophet. Evidence for this comes early in the narrative: "See, I am sending my

    messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in

    the wilderness, Trepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight' " (1:2-3).

    This conflated quotation is heir to an exegetical tradition linking the messenger to

    Elijah (Exod 23:20; Isa 40:3a; Mai 3:1a, 4:5). The implied identification of the

    messenger as John is accomplished by the next verse: "John the baptizer appeared

    in the wilderness . . . " (1:4).

    If this oblique reference were not enough, there is a set of passages sprinkled

    throughout the gospel of Mark suggesting that John the Baptist plays the role of

    Elijah in the messianic scheme of things. In fact, in the part of the gospel often

    thought to be its literary center, Peter declares that Jesus is not Elijah but Messiah;

    Jesus then demonstrates the validity of Peter's confession by his transfiguration,

    holding audience with Elijah and Moses (Mark 9:2-8). The eschatologically sub

    ordinate role of Elijah is explained immediately after the transfiguration (Mark

    9:9-13), and the context is again suffering and martyrdom.The recurrent allusions to Elijah suggest that there was a background debate

    about his role vis--vis Jesus. The stories of Elijah (1 Kgs 17:1-2 Kgs 2:12) as a

    prophet who ascended into heaven without dying seem to have led to an expansion

    of his role as an eschatological intercessor before God. This belief is hinted at in

    the ending appended to the book of Malachi (4:5): "Lo, I will send you the prophet

    Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts

    of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will

    not come and strike the land with a curse." This late biblical image of Elijah portrays him as a messianic figure who mitigates divine wrath and prepares for the

    day of the Lord.5 The narrative milieu of the gospel of Mark and the historical

    milieu of late Second Temple Judaism provide the contexts for the bystanders'

    misunderstanding of Jesus' last words.

    4F. W. Young, "Jesus the Prophet: A Re-examination," JBL 68 (1949) 285-99; R. H.

    Gundry, A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993)

    297-98; R. E. Brown, "Jesus and Elijah," Perspective 12 (1971) 85-104. Cf. H. C. Kee,

    Community of the New Age: Studies in Mark's Gospel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977) 117

    19; J. D. Crossan, In Fragments (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983) 285.

    li mi ta ti ons of space prevent me from discussing in detail the Elijah cult of the late Second

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    122 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW

    The reader is to inferthat John the Baptist has played the role of Elijah and that

    he has suffered the very fate awaiting Jesus (9:12-13). This is how the Malachipassages about Elijah have been fulfilled according to the gospel of Mark. The

    "messenger to prepare the way" (Mai 3:1a) is John the Baptist; "the Lord whom

    you see [and who] will suddenly come to his temple" (Mai 3:1b) is Jesus; "the

    great and terrible day ofthe Lord" (Mai 3:23 [4:5]) is the day of Jesus. This narra

    tive background explains the misinterpretation of Jesus' cryon the cross before he

    died. In effect the account of Jesus' last words recapitulates the earlier debate

    between those who believed Jesus was Elijah and those who believed that John the

    Baptist was Elijah.6

    The reader's attention is drawn to vv. 3-36 by the fact that the quotation (Ps

    22:1 [2]) is not in Greek. Jesus' words first appear as a transliteration into Greek

    letters of what is apparently his own language, and a Greek translation follows.

    Scholarlyinterest has tended to focus on the confused transliteration, which reflects

    a quotation that is neitherpure Aramaic nor pure Hebrew.7

    But it is the misunder

    standing ofthe crowd, not the accuracy ofthe transliteration, that rivets the reader's

    attention. The bystanders were confused by "Eloi" (), which they understood

    as "Elijah" (HXias). Commentators varyin theirattempts to account forthe confu

    sion. Gundry accepts the text as it is, saying that the tumult ofthe moment and therough resemblance of the words make the confusion understandable.

    8Matera and

    Schreiberbelieve the two words are so different that only two divergent sources

    6For the most recent treatment of Elijah in biblical literature, see M. hler, Elia im Neuen

    Testament. Untersuchungen zur Bedeutung des alttestamentlichen Propheten im frhen

    Christentum (BZNW 88; Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1997). G. Dautzenberg ("Elija imMarkusevangelium," The Four Gospels 1992. Festschrift Frans Neirynck [BETL 100; 3 vols.;F. van Segbroeck, C. M. Tuckett, G. van Belle, J. Verheyden, eds.; Leuven: University, 1992]2:1088-91) speculates that the Hellenistic Jewish understanding of Elijah may possibly haveimposed a Glaubensmotiv upon the crucifixion episode in Mark 15, that is, a need to clarifythe identity of Jesus vis--vis Elijah.

    7V. Taylor {The Gospel According to St. Mark [New York: MacMillan, 1966] 593) arguesthat the quotation is "a transliteration of a Hebraized Aramaic original." is theGreek transliteration ofAramaic " p C, "you have abandoned me," which itselfrenders the

    Hebrew "SHZTp. According to Taylor, reflects an unusual " 7 8 ; the expected Aramaic

    form "M 7 A has apparently been influenced by the loi vowel of the Hebrew form " n 7 .Taylor follows Codex Vaticanus et al. in reading , and explains that this spelling reflects

    Hebrew 0 /, "why," instead of Aramaic "7. B. Metzger {A Textual Commentary on theGreek New Testament [New York: UBS, 1971] 119) concurs with Taylor's explanation of

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    MARK WHITTERS 123

    brought together by the gospel can explain the discrepancy.9 Others take a differentapproach: Jeremas10 and Taylor11 suggest that Mark's transliteration is sim

    ply incorrect and that Matthew's is the word that the people take for "Eli," an

    abbreviated form of "Elijah."

    The least complicated way to resolve this crux is to rely on a literary orrhetori-

    cal approach and not on linguistic or philological explanations. Such an approach

    accepts the text in its present form and accepts the fact that there are significant

    differences in the pronunciations of "my God" () and "Elijah" (HXias). It

    may be presumed that the (Greek) reader ofthe gospel simply regards the original

    language of Jesus' quotation as a foreign (and inscrutable) tongue. Ifthe narrative

    implies that two words were confused, the reader is in no position to object.12

    What can be deduced from the gospel's portrayal of the bystanders' puzzle

    ment over Jesus' last words? The reader of the gospel of Mark must keep in

    mind that the audience of bystanders within the gospel thought that Jesus was a

    prophet comparable to Elijah. The reader must also be aware that the gospel

    promotes the understanding that John the Baptist carried out Elijah's role as the

    precursor of a messianic or eschatological event. The bystanders, however, do

    not seem to have been persuaded that John the Baptist was Elijah and the pre

    cursorof Jesus.While the precise meaning ofthe crowd's words about Elijah cannot be ascer

    tained, what is important is their dramatic effect on the reader. Now the reader

    encounters forthe last time a question that persists throughout the gospel. Is Jesus

    even now on the cross a prophet like Elijah? How does Jesus take on Elijah's

    characterwhile transcending him, even as he took on the character of a Davidic

    king and transcended it? The reader perceives that the narrative develops with

    attendant irony. When Jesus is mocked as king, he truly is king, though not of a

    type within their ken. When Jesus is associated with Elijah, he truly is a type ofElijah: intercessor, immortal, wonder-worker, eschatological prophet. The reader

    knows that irony speaks some form of truth.

    Questions regarding his identity plague Jesus to his last breath on the cross. In

    its passion narrative, Mark's gospel shows how the Jewish and Roman authorities'

    conceptions of Jesus fall short. The gospel's account of Jesus' last words dis

    penses with anotherinadequate title for Jesus: a revived Elijah orElias redivivas.

    9

    F . J. Matera, The Kingship of Jesus (SBLDS 66; Chico, CA: Scholars, 1982) 30-31; 36 -37; J. Schreiber, Theologie des Vertrauens (Hamburg: Furche, 1969) 32-33. One source would

    be the quotation of Ps 22:1 [2]; the other would be the belief that Jesus actually did invoke

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    124 HARVARD THE OLO GIC AL REVIEW

    It is a misunderstanding similar to previous misunderstandings in the passion nar

    rative. The confusion of the bystanders is an intentional rhetorical device that

    prepares the reader for the resolution provided by the centurion. When he utters

    his observation, all other titles and names for Jesus retreat into oblivion.

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    ^ s

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