Tuesday 22 August 2006

Theology for beginners (6): Crucifixion

Summary: The mission of Jesus ended in death by crucifixion.

The young wandering prophet and rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, was executed by state authorities around the year 30 CE. From one point of view, we might conclude that his mission had been a failure. He was put to death on a cross – a symbol of death and defeat, like a hangman’s noose or an electric chair. Yet the cross of Jesus, in all its offensive bleakness, forms the great climax of Jesus’ mission – and, indeed, the climax of the whole story of God’s journey with Israel.

At the decisive turning-point of Jesus’ life, he and his followers left Galilee for Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Jesus was welcomed jubilantly as the inaugurator of God’s new kingdom. But Jesus sharply provoked the religious authorities in Jerusalem. While the city’s Temple was at the very heart of Israel’s religious, economic and political life, Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple, and he performed a violent symbolic cleansing of the Temple court as a radical enactment of God’s coming judgment. It would have been impossible to have offered a more direct threat and challenge to the religious and political status quo. And so, as a result of such actions, Jesus was arrested.

As Jesus had travelled towards Jerusalem, it’s very likely that he had increasingly anticipated his own death. Throughout his ministry, he had been devoted wholly to his Father’s will. His message of God’s imminent kingdom was proclaimed out of obedience to the Father. The forgiveness he extended to social outcasts was an expression of the Father’s will for Israel. His prophecies of the judgment and vindication Israel were expressions of the Father’s nearness. But other prophets who had acted in such faithful obedience to God had been rejected and martyred by Israel; and Jesus probably realised that his own mission was similarly fated to end in rejection and death.

Jesus himself would not, however, have regarded such a fate as the failure of his mission. Rather, he would have viewed his own death as part of the fulfilment of God’s purpose for Israel: at the climactic moment of Israel’s history, God’s appointed messenger would take upon himself the tribulation of the end of the age, and in precisely this way the kingdom of God’s future would be ushered in. And like other Jewish martyrs of the time, Jesus would also have expected Israel’s God to vindicate him at the end of the age.

Thus Jesus’ arrest would not have come as a surprise. After the arrest, the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion – a typical fate for revolutionaries and political criminals. And so Jesus was crucified.

Even at the end, though, he did not struggle against his fate, but he continued to entrust his life to the one whom he called Father. Right to the end, Jesus submitted himself wholly to the God of Israel whose coming he had proclaimed. Right to the end, he put his hope in God, believing that God would vindicate him, and that the great climax of history would arrive. Right to the end, Jesus looked to the future of God’s kingdom.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ career ended in the death of a common criminal, a death of abandonment and humiliation. But shortly after his death, his followers came to believe that he was the world’s true Lord, and that history had in fact reached its climax – not in spite of his death, but precisely in the event of his death! The fulfilment of all God’s promises had arrived in Jesus; the goal of history had dawned in him. This was the conviction of Jesus’ pupils and followers, and their earliest confession was the simple but remarkable statement: “Jesus is Lord.”

But how is it that they came to call him – a dead man – Lord? How is it that they came to see his bloody execution as the climax of history? How is it they came to regard his death as the end of the world’s great narrative, as the fulfilment of all God’s promises?

Further reading

  • Bornkamm, Günther. Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), pp. 153-68.
  • Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1994).
  • Dunn, James D. G. Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 765-824.
  • de Jonge, Marinus. God’s Final Envoy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 12-33.
  • McKnight, Scot. Jesus and His Death (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005).
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Crucified God (London: SCM, 1974), pp. 112-53.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), pp. 245-69.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Ben, as ever. You demonstrate that theologians don't have to use what Hemingway -againts Faulkner - called "$10 words" to make the point. Two things, however.

1. You refer to the cleansing of the Temple as an act of "violence". That might mislead people. It is no more an act of violence than Isaiah parading naked through the streets of Jerusalem is an act of exhibitionism.

Richard B. Hays correctly observes: The Temple incident "is an act of symbolic 'street theater,' in line with precedents well established in Israel's prophetic tradition (e.g., Jer. 27:1-11). Thus, it is an act of violence in approximately the same way that antinuclear protesters commit an act of violence when they break into a navy base and pour blood on nuclear submarines. No one is hurt or killed in Jesus' Temple demonstration. The incident is a forceful demonstration against a prevailing system in which violence and injustice prevail, a sign that Jesus intends to bring about a new order in accordance with Isaiah's vision of eschatological peace."

2. How can you be so sure that Jesus did not regard his death by crucifixion as "the failure of his mission"? How can one psychologise in this way when the textual evidence is simply not conducive to it? If anything, the Markan cry of dereliction - the only time Jesus addresses God as "God" rather than "Abba", "Father" - suggests distance and despair. Indeed, it could be argued that it is theologically necessary for Jesus to understand his ministry to have ended in breakdown and collapse, that it is an essential element in the reconfiguring of the divine passibility. In any case, surely we must let the Markan (and Matthean) account of the death of Jesus to stand disturbingly side-by-side with the more composed Lukan Jesus and the explicitly victorious Johannine Jesus.

Peter Smythe said...

The premise that Jesus's mission ended at the crucifixion cannot be defended scripturally. In Luke 13, Jesus said that he was perfected on the third day, the day of his resurrection. Also, Hebrews clearly demonstrates that Jesus was required to present his blood before the Father in the Holy Place in heaven to obtain an eternal redemption. That event did not occur prior or even during the crucifixion, but afterward.

Joanna said...

Ben, thanks so much for these posts. I am finding them both intellectually stimulating and heart-warming. And the high calibre responses from other readers are equally enjoyable to read.

Anonymous said...

Kim, I think that even in the Markan and Matthean versions of the crucifixion, Jesus goes to his death deliberately. I think the proposition that, in dying, Jesus thought he had failed distorts the evidence. It is more than "very likely" (as Ben modestly puts it) that Jesus regarded his own death as the goal of his journey to Jerusalem. From his temptation in the desert through Peter's confession, and then before the Chief Priests, Jesus relentlessly rejected any way of being the Messiah that didn't lead to the cross. This is not to deny the distance and despair of Jesus on the cross; it's simply to say that he knew what he was getting into.

Also Ben, should you include Jesus and the Victory of God (Wright) in the readings, given your take on the temple action?

Anonymous said...

Hi Andrewe. Thank you for your comment. It will help me to clarify my point.

I agree with what you affirm - that Jesus "knew what he was getting into", that he "regarded his own death as the goal of his journey to Jerusalem", that he "goes to his death deliberately", i.e. consciously and even intentionally. Jesus was the obedient Servant. Absolutely.

However, I still disagree with what you deny - that Jesus may have despaired and considered himself a failure, his mission a shambles; and that if this were the case, there is good theological mileage in it concerning the fulness of the divine assumptio carnis. My basic, methodological point, however, is that the passion narratives - or any gospel texts -do not offer us a way (as classical liberals and their unreconstructed heirs think they do) into the "inner life of Jesus".

Michael F. Bird said...

A few comments fellas,

Kim: "Violence" is a loaded word and it can mean different things to different people. One man's "violence" is another man's "resistance". But if Jesus made a whip out of cords (John 2) it constitutes violence or aggression in some way. It is, furthermore, an act of righteous
violence if there is such a thing. As for Jesus' death as a failure, I for one am no fan of psychological profiles of Jesus, but if Jesus orchestrated his own death, then that's a pretty good indication that his death was not, to use a technical term, a "whoopsy"!

Peter Smyth: I think you're having a different conversation. Ben is not denying that post-exaltation work of Jesus. The post was on "crucifixion" not on the "ministry of Christ from Bethlehem to Heaven".

Neil: The prophetic model is the one that is historical. Whatever sapiential and liturgical interpretations one ascribes to Jesus' death and its signficance, historically speaking, his death was the death of a prophet, the prophet, and more than a prophet!

Andrewe: You're right - we need less Barth and more Wright on this posts :)

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these comments -- and thanks to Mike Bird (who specialises in all this) for responding to some of the queries. As Mike points out, this is just a historical sketch of Jesus' earthly life, and I'll be talking soon about the resurrection and about the theological significance of Jesus' death. So thanks for being patient with me!

Kim: I take your point about the word "violence" -- and admittedly I was only using the word loosely to mean "vigorously" or "with great energy". You're right, though: it certainly wasn't the kind of "violence" in which one person inflicts physical harm on another!

As for whether my sketch included too much "psychologising" of Jesus' intentions and expectations: although I'm a little uneasy about this myself, for the purpose of this post I just decided to trust the consensus of some of the best recent historical-Jesus scholarship. And there do seem to be good historical grounds for saying: (a) that Jesus would have anticipated his own death; (b) that he would have attributed eschatological significance to his death (just as signficance had been attached to the death of the Maccabean martyrs); and (c) that he would have expected God to vindicate him after death (perhaps in the general resurrection on the last day).

But of course there will always be some historical imagination involved in moving from studies of Jesus' context to statements about what Jesus himself would have "believed" or "expected". Still, that's history for you!

Peter Smythe said...

Michael Bird: I do not believe that I have missed it. Ben states that the cross "forms the great climax of Jesus's mission" and "Jesus's career ended in the death of a common criminal." In Luke 13, Jesus made the statement that on the third day, he is perfected which is the date of his resurrection. Also, in John 13, when Judas left to betray him, Jesus said, "Now is the son of man glorified." Both of those statements belie the idea that the cross was the "great climax" of Jesus's mission. Jesus, in John 10:10, explicitly stated that his mission was to give zoe-life to us. That could not occur until he was glorified and seated at the Father's right hand. It is that event that forms the "climax" of Jesus's mission.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Peter. I know what you mean -- but I think we're talking about slightly different things here. For instance, the "third day" predictions and the Fourth Gospel aren't used as sources for talking about the "historical Jesus", since these are post-Easter theological reflections. The post-Easter perspective is of course the most important one: but at this early stage of the series, I'm still just trying to talk about the pre-Easter (i.e. "historical") Jesus.

But in any case, I understand your point, and I promise I'll have plenty to say about the resurrection in the next post!

stc said...

I think I understand what Kim is saying. Jesus believed that his crucifixion would bring about the arrival of the kingdom. Maybe he thought that would happen before the moment of his death. Nailed to the cross, it suddenly dawned on him that events weren't going to play out that way … and he died in despair, believing that God had failed him.

I suppose you're following Schweitzer here, Kim?

Anyway, I want to say that Kim's comment brought tears to my eyes. I certainly know what it is to fail and sink into despair. If Christ experienced even that to purchase my redemption — there are not words to express my awe and gratitude.

Peter Smythe said...

Ben, I appreciate the comment and just read your post on resurrection. Two things I'd like to raise. First, in the early Church, the ascension, not the crucifixion, was emphasized. As I stated in my last comment, the crucifixion was somewhat of a means to an end. Jesus had to shed his blood, but like the type of the Day of Atonement, his blood had to be presented before the Father before there was a remission of sins. Those facts are essential to an understanding of the reason for crucifixion and also resurrection. Second, I have no idea what scriptural support there is for concluding that Jesus despaired of anything, except that the Jews rejected him. Can you provide scriptural support for that premise?

Anonymous said...

"the crucifixion was somewhat of a means to an end"

Try telling that to someone who was crucified.

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