Lorraine Caza, The prominence Mark gave to the cry on the cross, Science et Esprit, XXXIX / 2 (1987) 171-191

(detailed summary)

Lorraine Caza, a native of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, has been a Sister of the Congregation of Notre-Dame since 1956. She obtained her doctorate in theology with a research on the cry of Jesus on the cross, which was published under the title: Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, pourquoi m'as-tu abandonné ? (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) in 1989, published by Cerf-Bellarmin (552 p.). This thesis earned her the international Malipiero prize. For 20 years she taught at the Dominican University College in Ottawa where she became dean of the Faculty of Theology from 1987 to 1993, the first woman to exercise this function in a faculty under pontifical law. She was Superior General of her congregation from 1996 to 2006. She was also a consultant to the Episcopal Commission for Doctrine of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) until the end of 2010, and a member of the Commission for Theology of the Canadian Religious Conference (CRC) and of the Pastoral Council of the Archdiocese of Montreal until 2012.

The prominence Mark gave to the cry on the cross


Mark intentionally wanted to make this cry of Jesus on the cross (15: 34) the climax of his Gospel, the conclusion of his plan to present the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There are seven arguments in favor of this idea:

  1. Mark uses the name of Jesus as a subject of action in important statements, and here he uses it to frame the unit 15: 34-37 with Jesus screaming: the cry or voice (phonē) is used by him for fundamental revelations about Jesus' identity.
  2. To describe Jesus' death he does not use the usual expression of dying, but "expiring" in the sense of letting the Spirit go.
  3. Jesus' words are presented with an Aramaic flavor, followed by the Greek translation, a technique Mark uses in his Gospel to emphasize certain words.
  4. Mark uses the beginning of Psalm 22, which contains an element unique in the whole Bible, a question arising from an experience of God's abandonment, to emphasize the theological character of the scene and give it a highly dramatic color.
  5. The word of Jesus is followed by a scene of irony in which the Hebrew name of God (Elōi) is confused with the prophet Elijah, to reflect the difficulty even within Christian communities of accepting this experience of abandonment in Jesus.
  6. The chronological indication of the ninth hour would refer to the afternoon prayer and the evening sacrifice in the temple, and thus invite us to consider the death of Jesus as a worship of God.
  7. The centurion's confession is not related to Jesus' death but to his cry: it points to the exceptional quality of one who accepts to live the dark experience of the misunderstanding of the meaning of events, accepts to make his own a purpose which is not his own, accepts a situation typical of those cursed by God. It is in the mouth of the centurion that the proclamation of the good news is found.

Note: This text is a summary of the published article

Table of Contents


Mark's intention in writing his Gospel is clearly expressed from the beginning: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mk 1:1). But the climax of this good news seems to be reached when Jesus screamed on the cross with a loud cry: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is what this article seeks to demonstrate by analyzing Mk 15:34-37.

At the outset, it is important to point out a structure often used by Mark to highlight a narrative, e.g. he creates a frame arount it: this frame is represented by v. 33, where darkness fell over the whole world from the sixth to the ninth hour, and by v. 38, where the veil of the temple is rent in two, from top to bottom. Let's look inside this frame.

33 And the sixth hour having come, darkness came over the whole earth until the ninth hour.

34 And at the ninth hour Jesus screamed with a loud cry:
"Elōi, Elōi, la ma sabachthani?",
which is interpreted,
"My God, my God, for what reason have you forsaken me?"
35 And some of the bystanders, having heard, were saying, "Look, he is crying to Elijah".
36 But someone, running, having filled a sponge with vinegary wine, having put it on a reed, was giving him to drink, saying, "Leave (be). Let us see if Elijah comes to take him down."
37 But Jesus, having let go a loud cry, expired.
38 And the veil of the sanctuary was rent into two from top to bottom

  1. Doubling of the name of Jesus and the expression phōnē megalē

    The 34-37 set begins and ends similarly:

    34 Jesus screamed with a loud cry
    37 Jesus, having let go a loud cry, expired

    1. In the whole crucifixion story, this is the only time the name of Jesus is mentioned as the subject of an action. Elsewhere in the entire Passion narrative, the name of Jesus as the subject appears in each of his statements that mark important moments in the drama at play. Our text is one of these important moments.

    2. This is not the first time that Mark has spoken about voice or cry (phōnē)
      1: 3 : The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord (citation from the prophet Isaiah before John the Baptist heralded Jesus)
      1: 11 : and a voice came from heavenYou are my Son, the Beloved..."
      1: 26 : And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice came out of him (that spirit that said: "I know who you are: the Holy One of God")
      5: 7 : and (the man possessed of an unclean spirit) he shouted at the top of his voice: "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?... "
      9: 7 : Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice: "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!"

      It will have been noticed that each time it is a superhuman power that makes a fundamental revelation on the identity of Jesus.

    3. By beginning and ending with the mention of a loud cry, without adding "again" as in Matthew (27:50), our 34-37 set gives the impression that it is itself only one loud cry. In fact, according to R.E. Boismard (P. Benoit and M.-E. Boismard, Synopse des quatre évangiles II. Paris: Cerf, 1972, p. 426.), the original formulation probably boils down to: "At the ninth hour, Jesus, having let go a loud cry, expired". The rest would have been due to the editorial work of the evangelist who would have wanted to give a meaning to this cry, and thus to emphasize it.

  2. The euphemism for the action of dying and the choice of the verb for the action of screaming

    Marc also highlights this scene with the words "expire" and "scream".

    1. Instead of using the common term "dying" (apothneskō) or "death" (thanatos), which he knows well (see 5:35,39; 9:26; 12:20,21,22) to describe Jesus' death, he uses the word "expiring" (ek-pneō), formed from the root pneuma (spirit), which Matthew will render as "letting go the spirit" (Mt 27:50) and John as "giving over the spirit" (Jn 19:30).

    2. The verb "to scream" (boaō) is used in the Gospels in solemn proclamations (Mk 1:3), in cries of anguish and cries for help (Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46), in prayers and in recourse to God (Lk 18:7). This cry is usually aimed at making one's feelings known.

  3. The transcription of the Semitic expression attributed to Jesus, followed by its translation into Greek

    By presenting first the Greek transcription of the Semitic text of the beginning of Psalm 22 put in Jesus' mouth, and then its Greek translation, Mark gives Jesus' words solemn status. Let us put the Massoretic Hebrew text, the Greek translation of the Septuagint (LXX), Mark's text, the special version of the Codex Bezae (D) and Matthew's text in parallel.

    Ps 22: Massoretic Hebrew textPs 22: LXXMark 15: 34Codex Bezae version on Mark 15: 34Matthew 27: 46
    ʾēlî ʾēlîelōi elōielōi elōiēli ēli
    ho theos ho theos mou, prosches moi;ho theos mou ho theos mou,ho theos mou ho theos mou,thee mou thee mou,
    hina tieis tieis tihinati
    enkatelipes me?enkatelipes meōneidisas meme enkatelipes

    1. Semitic expression

      • If we take the Hebrew Massoretic text as a basis, we see that Mark's text, with his elōi (my God), diverges from the Hebrew ʾēlî, with his lema (why) he diverges from the Hebrew lāmâ, followed here by Matthew, and finally, with his sabachthani (you have forsaken me) he diverges from Hebrew ʿazabtānî, also followed by Matthew. In fact, Mark presents us with a more Aramaic than Hebrew formulation. One may be surprised by Matthew's ēli which departs from Mark to move closer to Masoretic Hebrew; but it seems that some Aramaic circles were not reluctant to use the Hebrew name to invoke God (see TgPs 22 and TgOnkelos).

      • The special version of the Codex Bezae is probably explained by a scribe's awareness of the discrepancy with the Masoretic text and his effort to harmonize it: lema became lama like the Hebrew text, and the passage from sabachthani to zaphthani could be explained by the fact that the syllable "sa" in the Hebrew text could be assimilated to the finale of "lama", so that the syllable "bach" became "zaph" because of the consonant "th" that follows.

    2. The Greek translation

      • Mark follows the LXX of Ps 22 by taking up again the invocation of God in the nominative (ho theos), while Matthew prefers the direct address of the vocative (thee mou). But Mark drops the prosches moi (attend to me) that the LXX added in its translation of the Hebrew text. Finally, he prefers to say eis ti (for what [reason]) rather than the hinati (to what [purpose]) of the LXX which is totally absent from his Gospel, whereas Matthew prefers this word from the LXX.

      • But how can we explain that the Codex Bezae prefers to say ōneidisas (to revile) rather than enkatelipes (to forsake)? It is probable that the scribe wanted to offer a softening version of the text, reflecting the uneasiness felt in the face of the cry of abandonment.

      • Finally, let us note that the only two places in Mark's Gospel where Jesus seems to reveal something of his personal prayer, here on the cross and in Gethsemane (Abba), offer Aramaic terms. Even if all the times in which Aramaic terms are found (the epphata, be opened, from Mk 7:34, the Talitha Qum, little girl, get up, from Mk 5:41, the korban, sacred offering, from Mk 7:11) do not guarantee their historical authenticity, it must nevertheless be admitted that the evangelist wanted to underline certain words of Jesus in this way.

  4. The content of the saying

    1. Saying interpreting the event

      • In Jewish consciousness, he who hangs on the tree is cursed by God (Deut 21:23). It is therefore a paradox that the witnesses of the scene of the cross had to go through: on the one hand, the crucifixion expressed God's rejection or abandonment, and on the other hand, the disciple's outlook still saw in him God's envoy. It is this paradox that the words of Psalm 22 express in confessing God twice (My God), but in confessing his incomprehension of such abandonment.

    2. Saying that expresses the theological dimension of the event

      • The heart-rending cry of this prayer is addressed to God and has a theocentric character. Abuse and scenes of derision disappear from the foreground and only his relationship to God is the focus of the tortured person. This is expressed in the two images of the darkened sky and the rending of the veil of the sanctuary. In this context, Jesus' single word reveals what is most important to him.

      • The Marcan account of the cross is somewhat modelled on the whole of this psalm. In this context, it is the whole psalm that illuminates this scene of Jesus' death, i.e. we are not only before someone who makes this heart-rending cry to God, but also before someone who keeps his trust in God and continues to hope for the restoration of his kingdom, and even dares to bless God in a song of praise. This is undoubtedly what Mark wanted to express with the scene of the last supper where Jesus blesses this bread, a reference to his body given over. This is what he expresses with the scene of the centurion's confession of faith.

    3. Saying that speaks of distress in a very characteristic language

      • Abandonment is expressed in Greek by enkatelipes (transcription from Aramaic sabachthani). Let us look at the uses of this word in the New Testament:
        • Mck 15: 34: "My God, my God, for what reason have you forsaken me?"
        • Mt 27: 46: "My God, my God, to what purpose have you forsaken me?"
        • Acts 2: 27: For you will not abandon my soul to Hades
        • Acts 2: 31: He (Christ) was not abandoned to Hades
        • 2 Cor 4: 9: persecuted, but not forsaken;
        • 2 Tim 4: 10: for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica
        • Heb 13: 5: for God has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you"

        It follows from all this that Mk 15:34 is the only one who speaks of a case of abandonment by God, which Matthew copied. In the other cases, either it is claimed that God does not abandon people, or it is Paul who complains of having been abandoned.

      • If we turn to the Psalter, we note two situations: either one express the faith that God will not abandon his servant (9:11; 16:10; 37:25,28,32; 94:14), or it is the believer who prays that God will not abandon him (27:9; 38:22; 71:9,18; 119:8; 138:8). Psalm 22 is therefore unique in the whole psalter: it does not affirm that God has abandoned the believer, but it dares to ask the question.

      • Mark, in using this psalm, finds himself giving a unique and extremely dramatic character to the scene he describes.

  5. The evocation of a misunderstanding triggered by the saying and the irony surrounding this misunderstanding

    1. Verse 35 tells of a misunderstanding of Jesus' prayer, as people around Jesus feel as if they hear a call to Elijah. This poses a problem: how could witnesses confuse Elôï with ʾEliyyâhû or ʾEliyyâh. A real phonetic misunderstanding is highly unlikely. But since Mark presents several times scenes of irony (14:65 in the Sanhedrin; 15:18 with Pilate; 15:32 at his crucifixion), it is probable that he offers us here a scene of ironization of Jesus' prayer to hide its gravity.

    2. But the question remains: on what source does Mark rely to introduce this ironic scene? It is possible that from the cry of Jesus on the cross various traditions have been developed to interpret its meaning. Since the call in Psalm 22 might seem implausible within the Christian community itself, it is understandable that some people saw Jesus' cry as a call not to God but to Elijah. Such an objection could be raised insofar as the Greek Ēlias (Elijah) was not phonetically too far from Elōi (my God). And the introduction of the figure of Elijah is quite appropriate when one knows his zeal for Yahweh, his ardent confession of the one Yahweh in Carmel, after having gone to Sinai. Throughout his Gospel, Mark associated Jesus with the figure of Elijah.

  6. The chronological detail of v. 34

    • Mark specifies that the great cry of Jesus took place "at the ninth hour". This is surprising, because one would have expected the chronological detail to refer to his death. It is probably necessary to associate this chronological note with the Jewish cult context where at the ninth hour the afternoon prayer and the evening sacrifice in the temple took place. Moreover, the cry was considered a form of prayer (see Sifre on Deut 3:23). And when we look at the content of Psalm 22 which ends with a song of praise, we find ourselves in the context of a sacrifice of thanksgiving with praise which is called the Todah sacrifice. Mark would therefore have made of this moment a liturgical and cultic action.

      Mark gives us two other chronological indications: they crucified Jesus "at the third hour" and darkness came "at the sixth hour". So we have three chronological indications. Is this division into blocks of three hours a pure coincidence? Probably not. The ternary rhythm of daily prayer is known in first-century Judaism and seems to have been adopted by the first Christian communities (see Didachē 8:3; Apostolic Tradition, #41). This liturgical framework could provide a key to the formation of passion narratives, and invite us to consider the death of Jesus as a worship of God.

  7. The relationship between the cry and the centurion's confession

    • The textual criticism reveals several variants of the centurion's confession. Most biblical scholars relate this confession to the cry of Jesus. It is therefore by hearing Jesus screaming his Elōi, Elōi, that the centurion proclaims his faith in Jesus the Son of God. Such a confession stands out from others coming from, for example, evil spirits defeated by the thaumaturgical power of Jesus, because it is rooted in the view of human helplessness and abandonment. It points out the exceptional quality of someone who accepts to live the dark experience of the misunderstanding of the meaning of events, accepts to make his own a purpose that is not his own, accepts a situation typical of those cursed by God. In his mouth is the conclusion to which the introduction of the Gospel of Mark ("The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God") wanted to lead us, and thus the confession of the good news.