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Why Did the Bystanders Think Jesus Called upon Elijah before He Died (Mark 15:34-36)? The Markan Position
Mark F. Whitters Eastern Michigan University

And in the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani," which is translated, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 35When some of the bystanders heard this, they said, "See, he is calling Elijah." 36Then one ran off and filled a sponge with 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." 37 But Jesus, after emitting a loud cry, expired. 38Then the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39When the centurion who 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 of Mark: he is Son of God and Messiah. Commentators routinely take note of this aspect of the passage. However, the relationship 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 reaction 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 identifies him as Elijah. I will argue that among the many names and titles ascribed to Jesus, Elijah was yet another ironic misunderstanding.
^ h e translation is my own, based upon the Greek text of UBS 4 . All other scriptural quotations are cited from the NRSV. HTR 95:1 (2002) 119-24




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, so that we may see and believe" (15:31-32). The matter of Jesus' religious pretensions 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 deriders 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 statement about Jesus' identity. The account of Jesus' last articulate words (15:34-36) reiterates a frequent concern of Mark's gospel, that Jesus not be 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. 9:913). 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;
See Acts 7:48; Hebrews 8-10; Wis 9:8; 2 Bar. 4:3. The same title occurs in 15:9,12,18, and 26. The title "King of Israel" occurs in v. 32 with similar connotations.
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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 subordinate 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.
4 F. 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. limitations of space prevent me from discussing in detail the Elijah cult of the late Second Temple period. J.J. Collins {The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature [ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1995] 102-35) reviews material from Qumran and elsewhere and comes to this conclusion: "I suggest, then, that the messiah, whom heaven and earth will obey, is an anointed eschatological prophet, either Elijah or a prophet like Elijah" (p. 120). For a discussion of Collins's views on Elijah, see M. Becker, "4Q521 und die Gesalbten," RevQ 18 (1997) 73-96, esp. 89 n. 79.



The reader is to infer that 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 Malachi passages 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 of the Lord" (Mai 3:23 [4:5]) is the day of Jesus. This narra tive background explains the misinterpretation of Jesus' cry on 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. Scholarly interest has tended to focus on the confused transliteration, which reflects a quotation that is neither pure Aramaic nor pure Hebrew.7 But it is the misunder standing of the crowd, not the accuracy of the transliteration, that rivets the reader's attention. The bystanders were confused by "Eloi" (), which they understood as "Elijah" (HXias). Commentators vary in their attempts to account for the confu sion. Gundry accepts the text as it is, saying that the tumult of the moment and the rough resemblance of the words make the confusion understandable.8 Matera and Schreiber believe the two words are so different that only two divergent sources

6 For 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 im Markusevangelium," 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 have imposed a Glaubensmotiv upon the crucifixion episode in Mark 15, that is, a need to clarify the identity of Jesus vis--vis Elijah. 7 V. Taylor {The Gospel According to St. Mark [New York: MacMillan, 1966] 593) argues that the quotation is "a transliteration of a Hebraized Aramaic original." is the Greek transliteration of Aramaic " p C, "you have abandoned me," which itself renders 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 the Greek New Testament [New York: UBS, 1971] 119) concurs with Taylor's explanation of , but Metzger follows Codex Siniaticus et al. in reading , which accurately reflects the Aramaic ?. Codex Bezae goes farther in Hebraizing Mark's version of the quotation: it replaces with the (= Hebrew "bib, "my God") of Matthew's version, and for it offers , which, as Metzger indicates, is a "scholarly correction" toward the Hebrew * 3 D . 8 Gundry, A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, 967'.



brought together by the gospel can explain the discrepancy.9 Others take a different approach: 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 or rhetori 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 of the gospel simply regards the original language of Jesus' quotation as a foreign (and inscrutable) tongue. If the 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 cursor of Jesus. While the precise meaning of the crowd's words about Elijah cannot be ascer tained, what is important is their dramatic effect on the reader. Now the reader encounters for the 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 character while 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 of Elijah: 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 another inadequate title for Jesus: a revived Elijah or Elias redivivas.
9 F . J. Matera, The Kingship of Jesus (SBLDS 66; Chico, CA: Scholars, 1982) 30-31; 3637; 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 Elijah. 10 J. Jeremas, " ( ) $ , " TDNT 2.935, . 62. n Taylor, Gospel, 593. 12 R. M. Fowler, Let the Reader Understand: Reader Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 108-109.



It is a misunderstanding similar to previous misunderstandings in the passion narrative. 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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