August 14, 2011

Last week, I began a series looking at a question which permeates throughout Christendom today and basically is a part of the so-called Calvinist-Arminian debate, namely, was God pulling the strings behind every action that was taken leading up to and including Jesus Christ's death?

Before we reflect further on the New Testament understanding of the death of Jesus, it may be well to consider how Jesus himself viewed the possibility or even the probability of his own violent death. This of course raises the issue whether it is legitimate or possible to do any kind of quest of the historical Jesus. In the earlier decades of this century, Schweitzer and Bultmann argued that quest of the historical Jesus was impossible. But since then studies of the historical Jesus have exploded, and the interest shows no sign of abating, particularly with the work of the Jesus Seminar launched in the eighties. At this point in the debate, however, there is no consensus as to how much or how little of the gospel tradition can be traced back to Jesus himself. While an overwhelming majority of critics recognize redactional (i.e. editing) tendencies in the gospel accounts, there is considerable disagreement as to the extent of those redactional tendencies and, conversely, the extent of material that can be attributed to Jesus with certainty. It would be fair to say that all critics, including the most skeptical, agree that in spite of the theological formulations of the evangelists, it is possible to isolate a basic core of sayings and actions that can be attributed to Jesus with certainty.

However, a more basic hermeneutical principle must be voiced here. Not only am I claiming that it is possible to do a quest of the historical Jesus, but also that a historically reconstructed portrait of Jesus is necessary for theology in general, and for our understanding of the death of Jesus in particular. This is not intended as a disavowal of the canonical authority of the gospels in their present form. Nor is it a matter of having to choose between the historical Jesus and the theology of the gospels. It is a matter of recognizing that the four evangelists present four different portraits of Jesus, each of them composed in a particular setting and for a particular theological purpose, but all of them bearing witness in different ways to Jesus. This diversity of witness in a wide variety of contexts makes a quest of the historical Jesus necessary for theology. As Leander Keck has reminded us, "the good news does not concern a Jesus who can be collapsed into the various forms of gospel-preaching as they develop from era to era but concerns a Jesus who stands over against them all."

With the above cautions and hermeneutical assumptions in mind, I wish to ask whether Jesus himself understood his mission to include a violent death as atonement for the sins of humankind. Did he go to Jerusalem expressly for such a purpose? If not, did he at least anticipate the possibility of a violent death and sought to interpret it in atonement categories? Since Christian theology has understood the death of Jesus as atonement for sin, the assumption has been in some circles that that understanding must have derived from Jesus. He predicted on numerous occasions that the Son of Man would be betrayed and handed over into the hands of sinners, that he would suffer and be mocked, and that he would be flogged and killed, and after three days he would rise again. His death has been predetermined by a divine decree, and Jesus accepted it and went to Jerusalem to fulfill God’s intentions, the argument goes. Calvin put it this way:

Now we must speak briefly concerning the purpose and use of Christ’s priestly office: as a pure and stainless Mediator he is by his holiness to reconcile us to God. But God’s righteous curse bars our access to him, and God in his capacity as judge is angry toward us. Hence, an expiation must intervene in order that Christ as priest may obtain God’s favor for us and appease his wrath… The priestly office belongs to Christ alone because by the sacrifice of his death he blotted out our own guilt and made satisfaction for our sins [Heb. 9:22].

In his recent book on the atonement, Richard S. Taylor has argued that "Calvary was not an option. The cruel death of God’s Son on a cross, if some other way to save the human race would have worked equally well, is not only inconceivable, but would be indefensible." Since "God [is] the ultimate ground" of the atonement’s necessity, "Christ permitted himself to be slain."

The problem with the above scenario is that there are other incidents in the synoptic gospels that would be simply inexplicable. If Jesus knew with utmost certainty that his primary mission in Jerusalem was to die for the sins of the world, what do we make of his prayer in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42)? Mark tells us that Jesus began to be distressed and agitated and he said to his disciples, "I am deeply grieved, even to death." The meaning of the verbs used by Mark to describe Jesus’ mood is that he was troubled, disturbed, stirred up, disquieted, perplexed, unsettled. Jesus prays that the cup of suffering and death be removed from him.

Various attempts have been made to make sense of this episode. One option might be that the whole Gethsemane account was invented by Mark or an earlier tradition that Mark used, as the Jesus Seminar has concluded. Jesus himself never experienced anything like the Gethsemane story. Mark, or the tradition before him, invented the story to historicize Old Testament prophecies. However, if we apply the test of multiple attestation to this episode, it would be difficult to dismiss it altogether as pure invention. The writer of Hebrews, using words that are intriguingly reminiscent of the Gethsemane episode, says, "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission" (5:7-8). Even the Gospel of John, which otherwise portrays Jesus as one who is in command of his own life and destiny in accord with divine purpose, includes a statement about his consternation at the thought of his own death, reminiscent of the synoptic account of Gethsemane. Jesus says, "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name" (John 12:27).

If the Gethsemane story is at least in its core historical, whether as a single event or a protracted demeanor on the part of Jesus throughout his life, what exactly does it mean for him to pray that the hour may pass from him or that the Father may remove this cup from him (Mark 14:35-36)? Some have proposed that Jesus was not agonizing over suffering and death as such but over the prospect of God’s wrath on sin that he would have to endure. Brown argues that since this "cup" language was used earlier in Mark in the dialogue between Jesus and James and John, where the meaning could not be anything but suffering and death, so also here the cup means not God’s wrath but suffering and death.

D. M. Baillie, while giving serious thought to the atoning death of Christ, nevertheless says the following about Jesus himself:

It is true, I believe, that Jesus accepted the Cross as from the will and purpose of God. But it was by human faith that He did it, not by the superhuman knowledge which can ‘declare the end from the beginning’… [I]t would be equally artificial to think of Him as forming the intention, at any point in His career, of being condemned to death… The Gospels…do not conceal the fact that to Jesus Himself, when He looked forward and saw that it was likely, and even when He embraced it by faith, it appeared as an unspeakable tragedy, and that up to the last night He hoped and prayed that it might not come.

If it were the case that Jesus was utterly certain that his death was his primary mission and destiny in the world, why such agony, agitation, supplications, loud cries, and tears? Why pray that God remove this cup from him?

We should seriously consider the likelihood that Jesus understood his mission in a more inclusive way than in terms of atoning death. Indeed, Jesus understood himself, his mission and his message as part of the kingdom of God. Mark 1:14-15 summarizes the message of Jesus at the beginning of the Galilean ministry in these words: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

For Jesus, the kingdom of God may or may not include death. His commitment was to the kingdom of God, the will and purposes of God. It may mean death, but then it may not. It is not the death itself that is primary. He was not seeking death; he certainly was not suicidal. He was seeking the reign and rule of God in all things. He can pray that the cup of death be removed; that is negotiable. The kingdom of God is not negotiable. He can recoil from the thought of violent death; he cannot recoil from the kingdom of God and the will of God. His violent death was the result of human decisions; it was not metaphysically necessary to bring about the kingdom of God. In fact, Jesus often speaks of the coming of the kingdom of God without a word about a violent death as atoning sacrifice. He says, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). "But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you" (Luke 11:20). "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 17:20). The kingdom of God is offered to all because God’s love includes everyone. God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (Matt 5:45).

Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God in parables, drawn from everyday occurrences and realities familiar to his audience, with no violent death presupposed as a condition for its advent, except possibly in two parables. "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened" (Matt 13:33). "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it" (Matt 13:44-45). The examples can be multiplied, but these should suffice to make the point that for Jesus the kingdom of God rather than an atoning death was central. A violent death, though likely, is not absolutely a prerequisite for the coming of the kingdom.

To digress a bit, it is worth noting John P. Meier’s comment on Jesus’ kingdom saying at the Last Supper, "Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom God" (Mark 14:25). Meier says:

The prophecy in Mark 14:25 is thus a final cry of hope from Jesus, expressing his trust in the God who will make his kingdom come, despite Jesus’ death [emphasis added]. To the end, what is central in Jesus’ faith and thought is not Jesus himself but the final triumph of God as he comes to rule his rebellious creation and people—in short, what is central is the kingdom of God.

The two parables that involve a violent death are that of the wicked tenants in Matthew 21:33-45 and the wedding banquet in Matthew 22:1-14. In the latter, some of the servants who are sent to invite the guests are killed, an obvious allusion by Matthew to the fate of the prophets whom God sent to Israel. Their violent treatment at the hands of the guests, however, was surely not the intended purpose of their being sent.

More to the point of this paper is the parable of the wicked tenants, which could best illustrate how Jesus understood his mission and its possible consequences. This parable, which is found not only in Matthew but also in the other two synoptic gospels (Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-19), is placed after the "cleansing of the temple" and the questioning of Jesus by the chief priests, scribes and elders as to what gave him the authority to cause such a disturbance. Jesus refuses to answer their question directly, but instead he responds with a question about John the Baptist. It is to this group in this context that Jesus tells this parable. The story is about a vineyard owner who leases his vineyard to tenants and goes to another country. When the harvest season arrives, he sends a servant after another to collect his share of the produce. But the tenants beat them up and send them away empty-handed. Finally he sends his own son thinking that they would respect him. Instead they kill him and throw him out of the vineyard. All three gospels conclude the parable with the statement that when the religious leaders heard this they wanted to arrest him but were afraid of the people.

The point that I wish to make is that when the vineyard owner sent those servants and finally his son, he certainly did not expect, let alone intend, to have them abused or killed. He expected the tenants to recognize the servants and respect his son. The mission of the son was to collect the produce. By the same token, the mission of Jesus in Jerusalem was to proclaim the message of the kingdom of God, pronounce judgment on the temple and its religious and political establishment, and call this very center of Judaism to repentance. That would be the fruit that God was expecting from the vineyard keepers in Jerusalem. But the religious hierarchy was in no mood to lend an ear to a fanatical prophet from Galilee who was a threat to the status quo. But the reality of the situation in Jerusalem was such that he expected his fate to be not much different from that of the son in the parable. In this vein, the mood of Jesus is graphically made clear from his lament over Jerusalem (Matt 23:37-39).

The one event during Passion Week that is widely viewed by critics as authentic is the disturbance that Jesus caused at the temple. It is also agreed that this was not a cleansing but "an enacted parable or prophetic sign of God’s judgment on it and, therefore, of its impending destruction… The symbolic destruction of the temple was prelude to the coming justice of a different kind of reign, the reign of God." And why such doom on the temple? Crossan provides a plausible explanation:

I think it quite possible that Jesus went to Jerusalem only once and that the spiritual and economic egalitarianism he preached in Galilee exploded in indignation at the Temple as the seat and symbol of all that was nonegalitarian, patronal, and even oppressive on both the religious and the political level.

Similarly, Herzog assesses the historical situation of Jesus in Jerusalem as follows:

Jesus’ rejection of the temple may well have derived from his analysis of the economic situation created by it. As the temple amassed wealth, the people of the land were getting poorer and poorer. In a society governed by the notion of limited good, Jesus drew the logical conclusion that the temple was getting rich at the expense of the peasants, villagers, and urban artisans.

Crossan rightly concludes that it was the incident at the temple that led to the arrest and execution of Jesus:

My best historical reconstruction concludes that what led immediately to Jesus’ arrest and execution in Jerusalem at Passover was that act of symbolic destruction, in deed and word, against the Temple. That sacred edifice represented in one central place all that his vision and program had fought against among the peasantry of Lower Galilee. In Jerusalem, quite possibly for the first and only time, he acted according to that program.

One must conclude from this discussion, that Jesus went to Jerusalem with his eyes wide open, he was not taken by surprise. At the midpoint of the Gospel of Mark, the reader begins to hear Jesus repeatedly foretelling his own suffering and death (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). Even if these announcements reflect the later theological perspective and experience of the post-Easter church, as critical scholarship has tended to view them, there is no need to dismiss them entirely as vaticinuum ex eventu. Jesus no doubt had a sense of what the national, political and religious climate of Jerusalem was like. "One would have to declare Jesus something of a simpleton if it were maintained that he went up from Galilee to Jerusalem in all innocence, without any idea of the deadly opposition he was to encounter there." Even while in Galilee he faced several threats on his life. The synagogue crowd in Nazareth wanted to hurl him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). Mark tells us that the Pharisees conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him (3:6). At one point during his ministry in Galilee some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you" (Luke 13:31). Jesus knew that Herod Antipas had earlier executed John the Baptist (Luke 9:7-9). Therefore it is highly probable that Jesus anticipated the same fate that had befallen John.

If that is the case, there is no reason to doubt that Jesus reflected on the meaning and the direction of his mission in light of the possibility of his own death. His original message as summarized in Mark 1:15 was: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." But it was not long before the storm of controversy grew. Jesus came to the realization that in order for him to remain faithful to his mission of proclaiming and living out the kingdom of God, he may very well face a violent death. And it may be that it was precisely through his own violent death that the kingdom of God would come.

Now Jesus had the difficult task of teaching his disciples the meaning of all of this. The Caesarea Philippi episode is highly significant. Peter declares to Jesus, "You are the Messiah" (Mark 8:29). Immediately after that Jesus makes the first of his three passion predictions, the only one that uses the verb "must": "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering… and be killed, and after three days rise again" (Mark 8:31). There ensues a vigorous interchange between Peter and Jesus. Words of rebuke are exchanged. Then Jesus teaches the crowd and his disciples that "if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

The second passion prediction is similar to the first. The third prediction, ironically, is immediately before the request of James and John to Jesus that they sit on his right and left in his glory. It is little wonder that Jesus says, "You do not know what you are asking." When the other ten disciples hear that these two brothers are conspiring to get ahead, they are indignant. Jesus calls them and says to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45).

What Jesus demanded of others, he himself practiced. His understanding of the kingdom of God was that one must deny oneself, take up the cross and follow him. The radical demands he made on his disciples were to be the result of one’s response to the kingdom of God that he himself accepted for his own life and mission. Again, it is not that God demands the death of Jesus as a penalty for sin. It is rather that Jesus comes to the realization that his faithfulness to the kingdom of God will likely mean his own death. Rather than mandated by God, the death of Jesus is the result of the conflict that the kingdom of God creates in the world. Jesus will drink the bitter cup if that is the only way he can remain faithful to the kingdom of God. In this way, then, Jesus understands his own death to be not only for himself but also for others. It is "a ransom for many because the power of the kingdom of God is unleashed in the world and will transform history. In this respect Jesus may well have identified himself with the suffering servant of Isaiah and seen his mission as that of dying for others. His experience with the realities of Palestinian politics brought him to the realization that the kingdom of God cannot come without cost.

In all three passion predictions in Mark, there is not a single statement to the effect that the death of Jesus was to be an atonement for sin as such. Even the ransom statement in 10:45 stops short of making the death a ransom for sin. Similarly, in the Lord’s Supper, the words of the institution, "Take, this is my body," and "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14:22-24), do not quite state that the death of Jesus was for sin. In fact, since the Last Supper was intended by Jesus as a Passover meal, that may open up for us another way of looking at the self-understanding of Jesus. The Passover celebration was not particularly understood as atonement but as commemoration of the Exodus from Egyptian slavery. 

Thus the death of Jesus, at least in Mark, does not allow us to make a case for atonement for sin. If anything, it points in the direction of an eschatological liberation or emancipation, much like Jesus’ initial announcement in his Nazareth sermon (Luke 4:16-30), with echoes of Jubilee themes from Isaiah 61:1-2. To take it a step further, several scholars have seen a connection between the temple incident and the Supper. According to Green, Jesus viewed himself as "the focal point of God’s great act of deliverance; in his death the temple and all that it signified regarding the ordering of Israel’s life were invalidated, and his own life and death were to be the basis of Israel’s life before God."

To conclude, Jesus may very well have viewed his own violent death as a probability, but not because it was divinely foreordained as atonement for sin but because human beings, whether Israel or Gentiles, seemed poised religiously and politically to respond violently to the message and program that he represented. Thus Jesus accepted that probability and sought to interpret it as part of the coming of the kingdom of God.

But there is still something very puzzling here—the cry of Jesus on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). One way to interpret it would be to deny the authenticity of the cry and relegate it to Markan redaction. Only Mark and Matthew have this saying. Luke apparently perceived the difficulty and deleted it, substituting a much less troublesome saying, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (23:46). Likewise, John has other words from the cross, but not this one. But why would Mark, or his tradition, create such a difficult saying? The answer is that this is part of Mark’s method of historicizing various statements from Psalm 22 and other Old Testament texts.

Another interpretation is that God did indeed turn his back on his Son as the penalty for all the sins of the world. This so-called "cry of dereliction," along with the prayer in Gethsemane, was Jesus’ desperate response to the ultimate punishment of separation from God. But if this is Mark’s meaning, it is at best less than explicit. Furthermore, as Vincent Taylor put it, "it is inconsistent with the love of God and the oneness of purpose with the Father manifest in the atoning ministry of Jesus." "Nothing in the Gospel suggests God’s wrath against Jesus as the explanation."

A third possibility is to acknowledge that this word of Jesus is a quote from the opening line of Psalm 22, which is a lament psalm. Some interpreters have gone so far as to say that when Jesus said the opening line of Psalm 22, he really meant the whole psalm, which turns into praise about half way through. That may be taking it too far. Jesus does not die triumphantly as a heroic martyr. He dies in bitter anguish and turmoil. Jurgen Moltmann says:

The notion that the dying Jesus prayed the whole of Psalm 22 on the cross is surely implausible and far-fetched. For one thing the psalm ends with a glorious prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance from death; and there was no deliverance on the cross. For another, people who were crucified were very soon incapable of speech... And it is only here, on the cross, that Christ no longer calls God familiarly ‘Father’, but addresses him quite formally as ‘God’, as if he felt compelled to doubt whether he was the Son of God the Father.

Luke’s omission of the cry is an indication that he did not understand it as a positive word. Furthermore, the context in Matthew and Mark precludes the positive interpretation in that the bystanders hear not a triumphant affirmation but a desperate cry for help.

We are left, then, with the option that the so-called cry of dereliction was an authentic and desperate cry of Jesus to God at the darkest moment of his life. Yet it cannot be taken to mean that God was in fact absent, or that Jesus despaired of God. After all, Jesus "continues to claim God as ‘my God’ and will not let him go…" If this were a despairing cry, it would be a contradiction of the whole tenor of Jesus’ message about the presence of the kingdom of God even in the most unlikely circumstances. What is remarkable is that even in the hour of his greatest darkness Jesus still turned to God. It was a cry of heartache, pain, and tears. But it was still a cry to God.

My conclusion from this brief survey is that Jesus anticipated his own violent death and sought to interpret it as part of his mission of proclaiming and living out the coming of the kingdom of God. It is also reasonable to conclude that at some point he came to the realization that if he proclaimed his message in Jerusalem, he would most likely suffer a violent death. This death is not in and of itself mandated and foreordained by God as atonement for sin arising out of the justice and wrath of God. Rather, it would be the result of sinful humanity’s idolatry of substituting social, political and religious institutions for the kingdom of God. In his role as servant, he would give his life as a ransom for many in order to liberate humanity from such idolatry and call the "powers that be" to accept the new reality of the kingdom of God.

Jesus did not die as a disillusioned messiah. He died with the conviction that not even his own death was going to put a stop to the kingdom of God, that the kingdom of God is even greater than his own life. In fact, he came to the place where he believed that if the kingdom of God meant his own death, he would accept the bitter cup and drink it. Even though the following saying of Jesus is colored by Johannine theology, it contains an authentic core that goes back to Jesus because it is also attested in the synoptic gospels. Jesus said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:24-24; cf. Mark 8:34-36). Jesus died with the conviction that his own death was not the end of God’s story. The eternal God was still there even if surrounded with complete darkness.

Next week, we will go into the New Testament's interpretation of the events surrounding Jesus' death and discover that human selfishness, not the hand of God forcing men, was the major factor behind His crucifixion.

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