Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Story of the Crucifixion, Part Two

by John Shelby Spong

It is certainly a fact of history that a man named Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the Romans somewhere around the year 30 CE. This crucifixion came during the procuratorship of a Roman official named Pontius Pilate, who was in his Judean post according to Roman records between the years 26 and 36 CE. What role the Jewish religious authorities played in this crucifixion is very unclear. At the very least we know that, as a conquered people, Jews did not have the power to execute. The crucifixion was clearly a Roman act done in the Roman manner of execution. The Romans, not the Jews, were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. The crime for which he was put to death was both religious (blasphemy) and political (sedition).

The real question is: how many of the familiar details that surround his crucifixion were also literal events that actually happened and were recorded by eyewitnesses? The answer is probably very few! The only records we have are in the New Testament and the relevant books were written 40-70 years after the event they purport to describe. They were also written in a language (Greek) that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples spoke, read or wrote. The gospels were written to create faith and to interpret the Jesus experience, not to record what actually happened. Yet over the years of Christian history these narratives have been mistakenly treated as history. Today I will try to look at the story of the crucifixion in a very different way.

First, we need to be aware that the story of a traitor named Judas Iscariot is highly suspect. The name Judas did not appear in any written Christian materials until the 8th decade of the Christian era and when it did appear, the title “Iscariot,” which means “political assassin,” was already attached to it. Paul, writing between 51 and 64 CE, had clearly never heard the story of a traitor being one of the twelve. When Paul suggests that the Risen Christ was seen by “the twelve” on the third day after the crucifixion, it is clear that Judas is still among them (I Cor. 1:1-6). When we analyze the other details that have been written into the biblical biography of Judas we discover that every one of them is based on a traitor story in the Old Testament. Judas thus appears to be a literary composite of all the known traitors in Jewish history. History, he is not!

When we turn to the first biblical narrative of the crucifixion that is in Mark, we discover that it is made up of material developed to be used liturgically during a 24-hour vigil service of worship to mark the anniversary of Jesus’ death; that is, it is designed for use on Good Friday. This liturgical pattern clearly developed very early, since it is reflected in Mark who wrote about two generations after the crucifixion. In Mark’s narrative we can see the vigil’s outline of eight three-hour segments: The first segment begins with the words, “When it was evening” (Mark 14:17), which means that it began at sundown or about 6:00 p.m. Jesus, we are told, gathers with his disciples for the Passover meal. We know that the Passover observance included games and frivolity in addition to the meal and that it also offered the opportunity for the patriarch of the family to tell the story of the flight to freedom of the Jews from Egypt to the gathered family members. We also know that it normally lasted about three hours and concluded with the singing of a hymn. In Mark’s story at the meal’s end, the disciples sing a hymn and go out into the night.  It is thus now 9:00 p.m.

They went immediately to a place known as the Garden of Gethsemane where Mark tells us that Peter, James and John could not watch with Jesus for one hour, two hours or three hours without falling asleep. Worshipers at this liturgy would, at this time, be having the same problem. Jesus then emerges from the garden. It is obviously now 12:00 midnight.

The kiss of the traitor is made by Mark to occur at the stroke of midnight; so the darkest deed in human history is said to have been performed at the darkest hour of the night. Mark has this act of betrayal continue before the symbols of Jewish authority, the high priests and leaders of the Sanhedrin. The rejection of Jesus was interpreted by Mark to have been a corporate act of the whole nation. That is reflected in the fact that Mark has given the name of the nation to the traitor, since Judas is simply the Greek spelling of Judah. The full account of the betrayal act thus takes three hours in this liturgy, so it is now 3:00 a.m.

The watch of the night that begins at 3:00 a.m. and lasts until 6:00 a.m. was known as “cockcrow.” Into that slot of time, Mark has written the story of Peter’s threefold denial, one act of denial for each hour until the cock crows to announce the arrival of the morning.

Right on cue, Mark says, “When morning came” or at about 6:00 a.m., Jesus was taken to Pilate. There before the representative of the Roman Empire, we have a description of the presumed interrogation that supposedly led to his condemnation. Included is an account of flogging, mocking, a purple robe, a crown of thorns and the introduction of one named Barabbas, all of which are described in detail.  Another three hours in the vigil is over, so it is now 9:00 a.m.

Mark announces that fact, again right on cue, by saying that they crucified him at the third hour or at 9:00 a.m., and Mark describes that scene with details that, as we mentioned earlier in this series, have been taken out of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. The details from Psalm 22 include the hostile crowd telling him to come down from the cross if he is what he clams to be; the dividing of his clothes and the “casting of lots” for his tunic; while the details from Isaiah 53 include the two thieves, one on each side of him and his silence before his accuser, both of which are said to fulfill the words of Isaiah 53, where it is written that the “servant” would be “numbered among the transgressors” and would remain silent in the face of his enemies. Then, at the sixth hour, or after three hours on the cross, Mark tells us that “darkness covered the whole earth” to announce the next segment of the vigil.

That means it was now 12:00 noon.  This is not, obviously, literal darkness. If one believed, however, as Mark and those who were observing this twenty-four hour vigil did, that Jesus was “the light of the world,” his death would plunge the world into total darkness. Mark tells us that this darkness lasted while his life hung in the balance from the sixth until the ninth hour. That is from 12 noon to 3:00 p.m., at which time Mark has Jesus utter the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which is the first verse of Psalm 22, and then Mark says: he bowed his head in death. It is now 3:00 p.m.

In order to complete the 24 hour vigil, from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., Mark tells the story of Jesus burial in a tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea, a ruler of the Jews and thus a rich man. Isaiah 53 had said that his servant figure would be “with a rich man in his death.” Mark gives narrative form to that word in developing the Joseph story. Joseph was an important patriarchal ancestor to the people of the Northern kingdom, the non-Judah citizens, so Mark uses that knowledge to portray Jesus as bringing together the Jewish nation in his death. None of this is history, it is interpretive liturgy written to be acted out in observance of the death of Jesus.

Mark also in this narrative tells us the story of Barabbas, a name that literally means son (bar) of God (Abba). So Barabbas is a second “son of God” in the passion narrative. In that narrative, the son of God, named Barabbas, is set free. The other son of God, Jesus, is crucified. People not familiar with Jewish patterns of worship need to know that in the liturgy of Yom Kippur, there are two animals that are brought to the high priest. One, normally a lamb, is sacrificed as an offering for the sins of the people; the other, normally a goat, is set free to bear the sins of the people away. The first creature is called the “Lamb of God” and represents the people’s yearning to come into a sense of oneness with God. The second is called the “scapegoat” and on it the sins of the people are symbolically carried away, leaving them at one with God. By introducing Barabbas into the passion narrative, Mark is interpreting the crucifixion through the lens of Yom Kippur. Those unfamiliar with Jewish worship will never understand Mark’s style of writing or see that he never intended his narrative to be thought of as literal history.

Many people are so clearly trapped inside the mindset of believing that the gospels must be read literally and that their account of Jesus is biography that they feel there can be no other way to read them. So when their literal understandings are challenged, they seem to believe there is nothing left. The gospel writers, however, were surely aware that they were using Jewish words and Jewish images that were so familiar to their original audiences that there would be no chance they would misunderstand their intentions and treat their narratives literally. Instead they wrote to interpret the profound and moving God experience that they believed they had encountered in the person of Jesus. It was a transformative, eye-opening, consciousness-raising, life expanding experience. It was real, indeed more real than anything they had ever known before, but it was also beyond the power of human words, time bound as they are, to capture. When we, today, peel away these interpretive layers, we discover, not that the story has been destroyed, but that the reality is more than ever we imagined. Everything that matters is left, and we are now pointed beyond the explanations of antiquity and into the wordless wonder of the presence of God.

When the Christian movement reached the time of the writing of the Fourth Gospel (95-100) this is so deeply a part of the Christian understanding that this work presents us with the least literal and at the same time the most profound portrait of Jesus in the entire New Testament.

Do not fear the death of literalism. Its death opens the door to the meaning of Jesus that literal words actually block and impede. “Think Different–Accept Uncertainty” is the doorway into a new Christianity in a new world.


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