Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Story of the Crucifixion, Part One

by John Shelby Spong

Somewhere between a third and forty percent of each of the four gospels in the New Testament is concerned with the last week in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Clearly that was the focus of the gospel narratives – that was the emphasis of their message. Mark’s gospel has even been described as “the Passion narrative with a prologue.” John’s gospel devotes 9 of its 21 chapters (12-21) to the events of the last week in Jesus’ life, telling the story of the final meal as early as chapter 13. Even though these gospels were written forty to seventy years after the crucifixion, there is no doubt that the cross was still the center of the Christian message.

Throughout most of Christian history, these passion stories have been regarded by the followers of Jesus as the accounts of eyewitnesses and therefore as historically trustworthy. The details drawn from these descriptions of the final events in Jesus’ life were liturgically burned into our memories and the narrative of the crucifixion has became, next to the account of Jesus’ birth, the most familiar part of the Christian story.

Most of us know the general outline and even the details. It begins with the triumphant march into Jerusalem, which is celebrated on Palm Sunday, and then moves to the story of Jesus cleansing the temple of the moneychangers; the elaborate preparations for a meal that was soon identified as “the Last Supper” held in a borrowed space that became known as “the Upper Room;” the journey to the Garden of Gethsemane; the betrayal by Judas with a kiss followed by the arrest; the trial before the Jewish authorities; the threefold denial by Simon Peter marked by the crowing of the cock; the trial before Pilate; the release of Barabbas; the mocking of Jesus with the purple robe and a crown of thorns; the flogging ordered by Pilate; the journey to Calvary; the bearing of the cross by Simon of Cyrene; the crucifixion; darkness at noon; the cry of dereliction, “My, God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the death of Jesus, and finally the burial assisted by one known as Joseph of Arimathea.

Hymns have been composed for use in churches through the centuries, which served to enforce these vivid biblical images. One thinks of “Go to dark Gethsemane,” “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and many others. Christian art, from the masterpieces that hang in the great museums of the world down to “the Stations of the Cross” found in humble country churches, all served to familiarize us with the major aspects and the unforgettable quality of this Christian narrative.

The question still needs to be raised, however, as to just how much of this story is history? How much of it was a later attempt to portray Jesus as the literal fulfillment of the scriptural expectations? How much of this material was created in an effort to make history conform to already established lines of interpretation? After all each of these accounts was written between two and four generations after the events they purport to describe.

In the first 1800 or so years of Christian history there was little questioning of the accuracy of these narratives, but in the last 200 to 300 years new sources of scholarship, combined with a critical approach to the study of the Bible, have opened these texts to us in many new ways and from this new knowledge dramatically new conclusions have forced themselves into our conscious minds. This scholarship began primarily in Germany, but has worked its way into all of the Christian academies of the world. The results have been salutary, deepening the faith of some, rocking the literalism of others.

The first insight from this new scholarship came when the dates of the major writers of the New Testament were discovered and we were then allowed to begin to read the books of the New Testament in the order of their writing. Clearly the story grew over the years. Paul was first, writing all of his authentic epistles between the years 51-64. If we read Paul without the insights of the later gospels we discover that Paul had never heard the story of one of the twelve being the traitor. Paul did not portray the crucifixion as happening at the time of the Passover. Paul reveals no knowledge of an adventure in the Garden of Gethsemane and appears never to have heard of the roles that Pilate; Barabbas or Peter might have played in the story of the cross. He did not know of any “words” spoken from the cross; darkness at noon, or of a tomb of Joseph in which Jesus was buried.

He does interpret the cross as part of a plan of salvation: “He died for our sins,” Paul wrote. He also suggests that this crucifixion was “in accordance with the scriptures,” by which he meant the Old Testament for there was no New Testament until well after the time of Paul’s death. That phrase also makes it clear that the attempt to see Jesus as the fulfillment of all Jewish expectations had been an early and regular part of the way the followers of Jesus processed the Jesus experience.

When Mark, the first gospel, was written in the early 70’s, he undercut the literal reading of this story by telling us that when Jesus was arrested, “all the disciples forsook him and fled.” There were apparently no eyewitnesses! Mark was the first to mention Judas Iscariot, the denial of Peter or the story of Barabbas. We know now that Mark was the first to write a story of the crucifixion (Mark 14:17-15:47), but when we read this original narrative we discover that it is not an eyewitness account at all, it is an interpretation of the death of Jesus based on two passages out of the Hebrew Bible.

The first is Isaiah 53, written in the 6th century BCE, and the second is Psalm 22, written probably in the 5th century BCE. From these two sources Mark draws most of the details of his story. From Psalm 22 he gets the cry of dereliction, “My God, Why?” the mocking attitude of the crowd and the division of Jesus’ clothes by rolling dice for his tunic. From Isaiah 53 he gets the image of Jesus’ silence before his accusers; the story of the two thieves crucified with him, one on each side, and the account of Jesus being with a rich man in his death, which Mark develops into his story of Joseph of Arimathea. Despite years of having been taught that this original story of the cross was an eyewitness account, we now know that it was never intended to be that.

Matthew, written about a decade after Mark, copies most of Mark’s story making only a few editorial additions. Judas not only becomes darker, but Matthew has added other details to the Judas story. Only in Matthew is the price of betrayal put at thirty pieces of silver, only in Matthew does Judas repent and try to return the money, hurling it back into the Temple when it was refused, and only in Matthew does Judas then go and hang himself. Even these details do not appear to be memories of what actually happened, but were rather borrowed from other traitor stories in the Hebrew Scriptures and deliberately written into the Judas narrative. In Zechariah, for example, the shepherd king of Israel is handed over for thirty pieces of silver to those who buy and sell animals in the Temple and then the silver is hurled back into the Temple. In the stories around King David, a man named Ahithophel, who ate at the king’s table, betrays King David and when his trickery failed, he went out and hanged himself.

Luke, writing about a decade after Matthew and also with Mark in front of him on whom he too relies, discovers that Isaiah 53 says that the “servant,” a mythological literary creation of this unknown author who dominates the writing of II Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), was said to have made intercession for his tormentors. So Luke writes this detail into his story by having Jesus pray for those tormenting him: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Luke also takes the two thieves, who were introduced without commentary by Mark and who had both joined in tormenting Jesus in Matthew and turns one of them into being penitent. To him Jesus then speaks the words of assurance, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke also dismisses the cry of dereliction, “My God, Why?” and replaces it with words of trust and confidence, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

When we come to John, written near the end of the first century, some 65-70 years after the crucifixion, a very different story of the passion emerges. There is no agony in the garden of Gethsemane over whether or not Jesus will “drink this cup.” It was “for this purpose” that I was born,” John’s Jesus states. In John, Jesus’ mother appears for the first time at the foot of the cross where she is commended to the care of the “beloved disciple,” a figure of whom none of the previous gospels appear ever to have heard. The story of the authorities coming to hasten the death of the victims by breaking their legs is told by John for the first time, noting that Jesus was spared this final indignity because he was already dead. This, John says, fulfilled a prophetic word that “none of his bones were broken,” a reference to the lambs used in Jewish worship at both Passover and Yom Kippur. According to John, these frustrated authorities then thrust a spear into the dead body of Jesus, drawing from the wound both water and blood and fulfilling for John the words written in Zechariah, “They looked on him whom they pierced.”

So, by tracing the details through their writing in history from Paul (51-64) through Mark (72), to Matthew (82-85), Luke (88-93) and John (95-100), we watch the story grow and we begin to embrace both how and for what purpose the details were added to the story of the cross.

This was the first insight into just how few of the recorded events in the account of Jesus’ crucifixion were remembered history. There are some other things worth noting. Judas is even exonerated in the later gospels of Luke and John, when it is suggested that he is under the control of Satan and thus not responsible for his behavior. In a similarly dramatic way, Pilate is portrayed in a more and more sympathetic way as the time passes. He is pictured as finding no fault in Jesus and as seeking to find a way to release him. How much of this story is actual history and what are the implications if it is not? Those will be the questions I will address when this series continues.


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