In the early twentieth century, a German doctor, Albert Schweitzer, wrote a book – The Quest of the Historical Jesus. In that, he claimed that Jesus was a great man who proclaimed himself to be Messiah and preached about the Kingdom of God. In order to bring the Kingdom of God quickly on earth, He gave his life and died but sadly, Jesus’ expectations were never fulfilled because the Kingdom never came. He died in vain but because he faced death valiantly for what he believed, we can call Him a ‘heroic figure’. This is what many who do not believe in supernatural powers and miracles seem to believe and know about Jesus Christ. Note that they accept the historical fact that Jesus lived and died on the cross, but are not willing to accept the so called ‘mythical’ stories which were later added in the Biblical writings. They claim that a scientific mind cannot accept the stories that revolve around superstition. But for us Christians, the death of Jesus has a greater meaning and significance. How are we to convey this hope of the cross if we cannot understand the importance of it? Was Jesus just a moral teacher who lived a heroic life, or is He the Son of God, who He claimed He was? In this article we will revisit the events at the Cross of Calvary to see how Jesus’ death impacted the Centurion – who witnessed His crucifixion. When at the end, he finally confessed Jesus to be the “Son of God,” was it because He saw Jesus as some Hero, or was he able to see Christ as the true Messiah? Let’s meditate.

 

Cross and the Centurion

The Bible tells us about this Centurion who was guarding Jesus while he was hung on the cross. Matthew tells us how Jesus “gave up his spirit” after crying out again in a loud voice (Matt 27: 50). He also talks about different signs that we evident – the curtain of the temple getting torn into two, the trembling earthquake, the resurrection of the dead, etc. – which happened afterward. Then he goes on to say, “When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God” (Matt 27: 54). Luke, while narrating this same event, talks only about the Centurion and how he confessed Jesus to be a righteous man (Luke 23: 47). But Mark’s narrative has interesting things that we all can observe. As per his custom of being specific, Mark describes this event with little words saying, “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last… And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15: 37-39).

Imagine, if we must have had only the Gospel of Mark, would we have understood the connection between Jesus’ loud cry and Centurion’s confession? We might have thought that there is a communication gap in the details OR is there anything at all to be understood in this connection? But without the inclusion of many details, Mark’s original first century readers probably would have understood the connection and the profound meaning in it. Mark does not want to distract the readers with the events of earthquake or the resurrection of the dead people in Jerusalem. He only wants us to focus on the fact that Jesus cried aloud and died, and then when the centurion saw the manner in which Jesus died, he confessed Him to be the Son of God. If we want to understand the full implication, we need to first know some finer details about the crucifixion.

 

Crucifixion in history

Historically, we can find many accounts of crucifixion in ancient literature. It was a common practice to execute criminals on the cross, so that it would be a public example for others and serve as a deterrent. This method of executing criminals was used extensively by Romans during the time of Jesus, but with more severity. Mass crucifixion was also in practice. Somewhere around 73 – 71 BC, a Roman general, Crassus, crucified 6000 slaves for revolting against the authorities along the highway to Rome, as a lesson to others. Around 2000 Jews were crucified in 4 BC by the Roman Governor of Syria, Varrus, for an abortive revolt. During the time of Jesus, the cross and the death on the cross was considered to be shameful and not a thing to be talked about, because anyone who was crucified, was considered to be a criminal, traitor and an anti-national.

 

Details of Crucifixion

Though we seem to assume many particulars regarding the crucifixion by watching popular movies about Jesus, accurate historical citing – apart from the pictures of olden days – was made available only after the archaeological discovery of the remains of a man who was crucified between 7 and 66 AD in 1968. His name was Jehohanan – who was in his twenties when he died. His extant bones helped scientists to recreate the event. His arms were nailed to the cross-beam and the legs had been bent at the knees and an iron nail had been driven through both his heels together. His leg bones were broken. These details confirm the details of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in the gospel and other crucifixion narratives in the literatures.

As correctly recorded in the Bible, a convicted criminal would be subjected to flogging, and would be asked to carry the wooden beam on which he would be nailed. The crucified criminal was meant to suffer an agonizing and painful death. When they bent his knees to crucify him, the whole body weight would be on his thighs and leg muscles, and the pain on which would be excruciating. Sometimes people hung on the cross for several days and finally death came due to loss of blood or asphyxiation. But due to the Jewish sensitivities to festivals and important days, the Roman government had the policy of killing the criminals hanging on the cross in Palestine before the preparation for the festivals. This was done by breaking the legs of the criminals so that the whole weight would be on the hands. Due to the weight of the body, the limb bones would disjoin and the criminal would die due to asphyxiation (difficulty in breathing because the chest bone is pressing the lungs and other vital organs). This process ensures sure death with maximum pain and suffering.

 

Death of Jesus

If we look at the Biblical narratives regarding Jesus’ death after considering the details we just described, we see a totally different picture. The fact that He cried aloud before his death, points to his vibrant health at the time of his death. The Centurion must have taken note of this uncanny incident after having supervised several crucifixions in this career – where many must have just died slowly struggling to breathe, let alone shout. In other words, the cross did not kill Jesus but He on his own gave up his life. His loud cry was not a desperate attempt to breathe in the midst of suffocation, but a conscious attempt to say, as recorded in Luke, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23: 46). Mark was not concerned with the words uttered by Jesus but only with the fact that Jesus was able to cry aloud, which no one about to die on the cross would do. He considered only this fact to be sufficient for his readers to understand that Jesus gave up his life voluntarily and did not die a painful death.

 

Centurion’s Confession

In the Roman world, the emperor was considered as a divine being or the ‘son of god.’ Every Roman soldier would pledge their allegiance to the emperor. But in a moment, seeing the manner of Jesus’ death, the Centurion changed his allegiance to Jesus. How is this possible? There are two reasons to this, considering the historical background of crucifixion. One is that, he must have seen Jesus to be different from other criminals he had dealt so far. Contrary to the normal chaos of cursing and abusive words because of excruciating pain, he had witnessed Jesus talking about love, concern and hope to the people, who were around the cross. This marked Jesus differently from others who died on the cross. Secondly and most importantly, Jesus did not die a pathetic and sad death like others on the cross. Instead, as we see in the Scriptures, he was in total control of his affairs till the very end and consciously gave up his life on the cross.

 

The Cross

Jesus’ death changed the symbol of death to the symbol of ‘veneration and worship’. Cross which was a tool to bring death to many, became a tool of transformation to deliver people from the clutches of death. When we gaze at the cross, we see God’s love expressed fully. When we see the cross – we do not see a man dying heroically (in a worldly sense) or a good man (or a victim) put to death by his oppressors – we see a Saviour who came to this world as a man and gave up his life on the cross, so that we all could lead a sin-free life. Let the lent days be a time of reflecting on the cross and the manner in which Jesus died, which would ultimately lead us to confess Jesus Christ as the Son of God.