Posted February 7, 2004
From the Death of the Messiah by Raymond Brown — Background reading for the movie by Mel Gibson on the Passion.
Also see -- Brown, Raymond, The Death of the Messiah, Volumes One and Two, Doubleday, New York, Volume Two
The Jewish Abuse and Mockery of Jesus
The Marcan Account
While one can see that there are certain awkwardnesses in Mark, the basic text makes good narrative sense. For instance, despite nit-picking cavils, it is easy to surmise that the reason for covering Jesus’ face is because the challenge to “Prophecy” has to do with guessing who struck him – even without the background of a well-known game that shall be explained below. True, commentators, horrified that Mark’s “some”[mocking Jesus] seems to refer to the Sanhedrists who have just condemned him, express doubt that distinguished Jewish figures would have acted so callously. That is to confuse historical issues with the intended thrust of a Gospel narrative that has had a hostile view of the chief priests, scribes, and elders from the start. The Marcan Sanhedrists have been seeking Jesus’ death for several chapters: They formulated plans to seize him by stealth lest there be a riot among the people; they bought the services of Judas who would give him over; they sent a crowd with swords and clubs against him; they sought testimony against him, listening to patently false testimony that did not agree. That they would now express their contempt for Jesus in a dramatic gesture harmonious with the high priest’s tearing his garments is not surprising. Indeed, the only surprise is that Mark would speak of “some” instead of his usual “all.” Incidentally, this storyline militates against the theory of those who wish to exculpate the Sanhedrists by arguing that Mark’s “some” refers not to them but to the attendants mentioned at the end of the verse. That suggestion runs against the grammar, the thought pattern, and the Matthean interpretation as well.
The “began to” is typically Marcan style (some twenty-six times) and effectively combines this with what has preceded. Probably the main impression of the action of spitting is contempt, and it is the only action of mockery/abuse from this scene that will be shared with the Marcan account of the Roman mockery/abuse of Jesus. Nevertheless in the Old Testament, spitting in the face is also a punishment for the guilty, e.g., administered by the father to a daughter who has done something wrong or by the aggrieved widow to a brother-in-law who refuses levirate marriage. Theorectically one might even invoke the Qumran interpretation of Deut 21:23 wherein the hanged (crucified) is to be cursed by God and by human beings in support of the thesis that it was a duty for the Sanhedrists to express contempt for this criminal condemned to death (on the cross). Mark, Matthew and Luke make the Sanhedrists witnesses/testifiers to the guilt of Jesus; and Deut 17:7 would have the witnesses/testifiers the first to be involved in the execution of the guilty. . . . The fact that the spitting follows the conviction and is done by those who condemned Jesus moves it from the realm of random abuse to a connection with expressing outrage for one judged guilty of blasphemy, even if Mark’s readers would suspect that the outrage, like the tearing of the garments was theatrical.
Exotic and complicated comments have been evoked by the next action of covering Jesus’ face. Was it to make him look like a pagan temple diviner and thus explain the challenge of prophesy? Was Mark’s description a botched derivation from Luke’s “covered him,” since the verb perikalyptein normally involves covering large objects? Yet the verb may refer to covering only the head in Codex Alexandrinus of 1 Sam. 28:8, and it is related to kalymma, a word for “face veil.”
. . .There is a good possibility that the Marcan phrase about covering the face is quite intelligible in light of a game that would have been known to readers.. . . Three games involving covered or blindfolded eyes are mentioned. Myinda or blind tag, where the player shuts his eyes and searches for others to tag or touch them. The verb manteuesthai, “to divine, prophesy,” is used in this context, so that an element in the game was the ability to detect without seeing. In kollabismos or guessing game, where a player covers his eyes with his hand, so that when another slaps him, he has to guess which hand was used. In “blindman’s buff,” where a player is blindfolded and tries to find others while being hit with husks of papyrus. This last, which Miller suggests for the background of the present scene, could grow quite nasty at times, depending on the severity of the blows. Mark uses kolaphizein, which can run the range from a light cuff to a beating (1 Cor 4:11; 1 Pet 2:20-21 --- the latter connects it with the sufferings of Christ, and so it may have been set passion vocabulary.)
Although a few scholars have thought the purpose of the scene was to warn Jesus not to prophesy anymore, the analogy of the game makes it clear that we have here a burlesque of his ability to prophesy. Two prophecies were narrated in the trail: that Jesus would destroy the sanctuary and within three days build another, and that an aspect of his being the Son of God would involve the Sanhedrists seeing him seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven. Although he can prophesy such marvelous things, has he even the ability of prophesying demanded by a child’s game? Miller is correct in insisting that in dealing with Jesus, the child’s games has become quite adult.