The Transformations Of The Roman Soldiers At The Cross

Regarding the transformation of the Roman soldier at the cross in Mark, last time I said:

Just to show Mark’s Roman Soldier isn’t being sarcastic as Neil Godfrey claims, we read:

  • 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion who stood facing him saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:37-39 NRSVUE)

As anyone can see, the miracle of the temple curtain being torn precedes and is the context for understanding the admission by the soldier that Jesus is God’s true son, snubbing Caesar who the Romans would have seen as the son of God. Just as the curtain miraculously tore, the Roman soldier miraculously declared Jesus the son of God rather than Caesar. The soldier has undergone a transformation. A “gospel” means propaganda, that’s what kind of writing it is – exaggeration and flattering a known historical figure. Helms comments:

  • The syncretic flavor of Mark is at once evident from his reproduction of a piece of Augustan imperial propaganda and his setting it beside a tailored scripture quote. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE): “Whereas… Providence… has… brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar… who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior…, and whereas… the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.” (Helms, p. 24, in Price)

But we also see such transformations of the soldier in Matthew and Luke. For Matthew, it was the power of God that terrified the soldier

  • At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matthew 27:51-54)

The image here is the so-called power of Rome being transformed into the cowering little animal and becoming a believer.

In Luke we have another image, this time of the soldier rejecting the Roman verdict and seeing Jesus as innocent. We read

  • 44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 while the sun’s light failed, and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. 47 When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” (Luke 23:43-47)

I find Luke to be particularly interesting because the forgiveness theme seems the most conspicuous, such as with the prodigal son parable and Jesus’ words “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Ehrman comments:

  • It is easy to see Luke’s own distinctive view by considering what he has to say in the book of Acts, where the apostles give a number of speeches in order to convert others to the faith. What is striking is that in none of these instances (look, e.g., in chapters 3, 4, 13), do the apostles indicate that Jesus’ death brings atonement for sins. It is not that Jesus’ death is unimportant. It’s extremely important for Luke. But not as an atonement. Instead, Jesus death is what makes people realize their guilt before God (since he died even though he was innocent). Once people recognize their guilt, they turn to God in repentance, and then he forgives their sins. see:

Interestingly, the soldier in John’s Gospel serves the purpose of showing the reader Jesus was really dead by piercing him:

  • 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. 35 (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth, so that you also may continue to believe.) (John 19:34-35)

The point here is obviously an apologetic fiction meant to combat the objection Christians must have been getting from opponents that Jesus only seemed to die (the swoon or seeming death theory), which is why he was seen alive later.

In each case, then, we see the Roman soldier at the death of Jesus on the cross written so as to be furthering the propaganda of the Jesus movement, each soldier in his own way.

Please do check out the hub post in this series here, which this is the last of: