What does Mark 15:44 mean?
ESV: Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead.
NIV: Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died.
NASB: Now Pilate wondered if He was dead by this time, and summoning the centurion, he questioned him as to whether He was already dead.
CSB: Pilate was surprised that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had already died.
NLT: Pilate couldn’t believe that Jesus was already dead, so he called for the Roman officer and asked if he had died yet.
KJV: And Pilate marvelled if he were already dead: and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been any while dead.
Crucifixion typically kills by asphyxiation. Some victims are tied, others are nailed. Those nailed are impaled such that major blood vessels and bones are intact, but nerves are pierced. Early in the process, a strong victim can hold his weight up by pressing against the nails in his hands and feet. As he grows weaker, he droops, hanging from his hands. In that position, it is impossible to take a breath. As exhaustion, infection, dehydration, and blood loss set in, choking to death on one's own fluids is inevitable. It typically takes two or three days for a crucifixion victim to tire enough that he cannot lift his weight to breathe. The executioners' "merciful" alternative is to break the victims' legs so they die more quickly.
John sets the scene with more detail (John 19:31–37). The soldiers could let the three linger, but twilight brings the Sabbath, when no work, including burying the dead, can be done. The Jewish leaders ask Pilate to allow the soldiers to break the legs of the thieves and Jesus. Pilate agrees, but when the soldiers approach Jesus, the expert killers realize He is already dead. To make sure—and to pacify others—one guard pierces His side with a spear. Blood and water drain out, indicating He has died from some combination of blood loss and fluid buildup around the heart and lungs.
This spearing also serves to punctuate the undeniable fact of Jesus' death. This is not a small poke—it's a killing stroke specifically meant to ensure, beyond doubt, that the victim is dead. A chest wound gushing blood and fluid means the soldier's thrust likely penetrated through Jesus' lungs and into His heart.
John makes an interesting statement about this act of the soldier. He says, "He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe" (John 19:35). Partially, John wants his readers to know that none of Jesus' bones are broken, in accordance with the prophecy of Psalm 34:20, and that He is pierced, as Zechariah 12:10 foretold. But John is also strongly testifying against the claim that Jesus merely "swooned" or fell unconscious on the cross and did not die. There is no indication in Scripture that anyone in the first century thought Jesus did not actually die, but that theory is spread today. John asserts such a claim is absolutely false.
Mark 15:42–47 occurs after Jesus has died, after six hours on the cross. His death is confirmed by a soldier who pierces His side with a spear, allowing blood and water to drain out onto the ground (John 19:33–34). Roman tradition would be to leave His body on the cross to be food for the birds, especially since He was technically crucified for treason. But Jewish law states leaving a hanged man overnight is a curse on the land (Deuteronomy 21:22–23), and a secret disciple has an unused tomb nearby. Jesus' burial is also recorded in Matthew 27:57–61, Luke 23:50–56, and John 19:38–42.
After sham trials, Jesus is taken to the local Roman governor, Pilate. This is the only person in Jerusalem with the legal authority to have Jesus executed. Pilate is not fooled, and he attempts to arrange for Jesus' release. But the ruler's ploys fail, in part because Jesus will not defend Himself, and partly because the mob is intent on His death. Pilate offers a prisoner exchange in Barabbas, and even has Jesus brutally beaten in order to pacify the crowd. Eventually, he caves in and Jesus is crucified. Thanks to His prior abuse, Jesus survives only a few hours on the cross before dying. Jesus is then buried in a tomb belonging to a secret follower among the Jerusalem council.
After being unfairly judged, Jesus will now be unfairly sentenced and cruelly murdered. It's reasonable to say this chapter provides context for everything else contained in the Bible. From Adam and Eve until the last baby born in the millennial kingdom, every person other than Christ is stained with sin. Conscience, law, Jesus' direct leadership, even the indwelling of the Holy Spirit cannot keep us from sinning. Sinless Jesus had to die on the cross, sacrificing Himself in our place, so our sins could be forgiven and we could be reconciled to God. Beneath the violence, darkness, dishonor, and death is the love of God for all mankind (John 3:16). Jesus' crucifixion is also found in Matthew 27, Luke 23, and John 19. The next chapter describes the miracle of His resurrection.
The Gospel of Mark emphasizes both Jesus' servanthood and His role as the promised Messiah: the Son of God. This is done through a concise, action-packed style. Mark provides relatively few details, instead focusing on actions and simple statements. This relates to the Gospel's authorship, which is believed to be based on the memories of the apostle Peter. These include many of Jesus' miracles, in contrast to other Gospels which include many more of Jesus' teachings and parables. Mark also makes frequent mention of Jesus' ministry being misunderstood by others.
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