The Scripturalisation underlying “Good Friday”

The first of the last few days of our Easter holiday that have just elapsed, which began the remembrance for Christians of the substantive meaning of Easter, is what Christians call, somewhat paradoxically, “Good Friday.” What’s “good” about a Jewish itinerant preacher dying on a cross? Of course, as many Christians will quickly respond, he wasn’t just any old preacher; he was (somehow) the embodiment of Israel’s god YHWH.[1] But what are we to make of these claims from a historical point of view – can they even be, at any level, subjected to historical inquiry? This is indeed one of the main questions I have asked myself – and still ask myself – as a history student and a Christian as I self-critically evaluate why I believe what I believe, the presuppositions I bring to interpreting the historical documents that comprise the Christian bible.[2] I will begin with exploring the historical dimensions to this bold claim – and the limitations the historical method presents in this – which will lead into the arguably more fruitful realm of situating the Gospels and Paul in their ancient context of Second Temple Judaism (so as to at least understand the early Christians’ thoughts and beliefs).

On the one hand, historians will (rightly) say that since their discipline restricts them from answering philosophical questions of a metaphysical nature (e.g. the existence and intentions of a supernatural being), it is necessary for them to bracket such assumptions. I agree with this in general that it is necessary, just as much for the atheist as the theist, to bracket such metaphysical presuppositions, lest one’s biases skew the conclusions of their research; but I think it is ultimately more crucial, and indeed more fruitful for interacting with those who have different ones, for one to be aware of theirs in a self-critical manner. On the question of Jesus claiming deity, his miracles and resurrection, it is not uncommon for a NT scholar’s antisupernatural presuppositions to influence their assessment of their historicity, and for them to not question why they aren’t at least open to miracles occuring: the conclusions are already made; the data just needs to be manipulated to justify such conclusions. Those who are out to defend the faith at all costs are just as immune to this phenomenon as those with an anti-Christianity agenda – Martin Hengel has called both of these groups “radical fundamentalists.” There is a third type of biblical scholar, however, according to Dan Wallace: those who are truly liberal in the best sense of the word; that is, they examine the data and pursue truth, regardless of where it leads; they are even-handed, and motivated by a desire to know, even if the results are not what they expected or hoped for.[3] Though only a history student at this stage, I will try to adopt this latter approach in this post, and later posts forthcoming on this blog, for I believe with the twelfth-century theologian Peter Abelard that “by doubting we are led to question, and by questioning we arrive at the truth.”

And indeed, since the Gospels are propagandistic[4] and apologetic in nature (i.e. to confirm Christian faith, Luke 1:4; John 20:31), we have good reason to have a healthy skepticism of the historical value of the Gospel accounts – one that neither naively accepts everything as fact nor rejects everything as being reducible to ‘pious, fictional forgeries.’ Avoiding these two extremes (in no small part one of the chief aims of this blog), I will begin with noting the judgement of the majority of NT scholars on the substantive historical claims regarding Jesus: Jesus was almost certainly a miracle worker (hostile Jewish and pagan sources, the Talmud and Josephus, corroborate this), he probably claimed to be the Messiah, the early Christians almost certainly claimed that they received post-mortem appearances of the risen Jesus[5], and, partly as a result, they believed he was identified with Israel’s god YHWH (as the Greek equivalent for YHWH, Kyrios, was ascribed to him by Paul[6]) and thus worshipped him as such. Conspicuously absent from this ‘consensus’ is that Jesus himself claimed to be Kyrios (Lord).

This is due in no small part to the greater amount of doubt exercised towards the last Gospel (c. 90-95 AD), attributed to John[7]: although in it Jesus seemingly makes very explicit claims to be God – e.g. “I and the Father are one” (10:30) – his style is very different from the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and you often find John’s voice and vocabulary (as in the Prologue, 1:1-18) strikingly indistinguishable from Jesus’ own. For this reason, and others, there isn’t much doubt amongst Johannine scholars that John is paraphrasing and has developed Jesus’ speech in his characteristically longer speeches. For this reason, too, it has become common for NT scholars (particularly Christian ones) to say that whereas in the Synoptics Jesus makes implicit claims to deity, John makes these explicit in his theological reflections and elaborations. I think one can make a reasonable case – albeit admittedly a rather modest one that is not as “strong” as some Christians claim it is in “proving” his claims to deity – for the authenticity of, e.g., the sayings of Jesus in the Synoptics which implicitly claim deity[8]; but it suffices to state for our purposes here that the historical-critical method[9] has its limits in separating history from theology. Indeed, the repeated claim of my blog will be that history and theology are so inextricably tied together that it becomes impossible and thus futile to separate the two in a neat manner: the New Testament (and the Bible in general too) itself always grounds theology historically, and interprets history within the realm of theology.

I suggest that a useful point of departure in understanding matters of Jesus’ self-understanding, mission and work, going also back to my initial question of “Good Friday,” is to examine the Greek word underlying our English word ‘gospel’, not least because it is indeed euangelion, which means simply ‘good news’, that makes the remembrance of this fateful Friday acquire its “goodness.” NT Wright’s succinct definition of euangelion captures the Jewish context best: the gospel, says Wright, is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, is the Messiah [Christos] of Israel and therefore has been enthroned as the true Lord [Kyrios] of the world. Every single phrase in Wright’s statement is significant, starting with ‘royal announcement’, which had two principal meanings for first-century Jews. First, with roots in Isaiah, it meant the news of YHWH’s long-awaited victory over evil and rescue of his people. Second, it was used in the Roman world of the accession, or birthday, of the emperor. Since for Jesus and Paul the announcement of God’s inbreaking kingdom was both the fulfillment of prophecy and a challenge to the world’s present rulers, ‘gospel’ became an important shorthand for both the message of Jesus himself, and the apostolic message about him. Paul saw this message as itself the vehicle of God’s saving power (Romans 1:16, 1 Thessalonians 2:13).[10]

It is often wrongly assumed that the Gospels declare that there is an angry, malevolent God (“the Old Testament God”) trying to punish people but that Jesus represents love instead. But remember the oft-repeated verse, John 3:16, that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son,” not “God so hated the world, that he killed his only Son.”[11] The means by which God demonstrated his love to humanity may have resulted in a cruel, utterly shameful public death by arguably the vilest method – of crucifixion – but it does not follow that we are right in thinking – due to our modern intuitions and emotions, which lead us to misunderstand the Jewish context and misrepresent its categories of thought – that God hated the world.

If only we would consider, first, the depths of the NT portrait of the Father’s giving and the Son’s voluntary emptying of his divine prerogatives in his “not considering equality with God something to be exploited to his advantage” and “taking the form of a doulos [literally, slave]” (Philippians 2:5ff.) – if only we would consider the meaning of “God show[ing] his love for us” in this way, in the Messiah [Christos] dying for us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8), then we would, first, properly understand the context in which the early Christians comprehended the meaning of their Rabbi’s “scandalous” death. For indeed, if he claimed to be Israel’s Messiah (the promised Davidic King who would rescue Israel from its bondage to the evil powers), a crucified Messiah was, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:22, nothing but a skandalon [stumbling block] to Jews – a contradiction in terms, like hot ice. And to Gentiles (everyone else, a Hellene [a Greek]), Paul says, it appears to be a “foolish” message to proclaim – wasn’t crucifixion (as all Romans knew) for the lowest of the low, slaves without any social worth, so how could such a man, who died such a humiliating death, be a conquering King, much less the embodied of Israel’s good YHWH? Similarly, we might ask in our modern (supposedly less superstitious) age, how could one man – what’s more – two thousand years ago, die for the sins of the whole world? “Move on with our scientifically progressive world in abandoning such superstitious myths and ideologies, Samuel,” I hear whenever I make the rash mistake of making a Facebook comment on a post that maligns the Christian message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. How about, firstly, showing a bit of historical awareness and respect for an ancient culture’s thought categories, and not imposing modern categories on them?

When we begin with appreciating, indeed empathizing with, why the early Christian message might be truly ‘good news’ to those in the Greco-Roman world, it becomes easier, second, to understand the meaning of the work the crucified and risen Messiah achieved for Christians: ‘who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures.” This latter phrase actually comes from a pre-Pauline creed dating to within several years of Jesus crucifixion (1 Cor 15:3-8): “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me…” Almost no scholar doubts that Paul wrote this letter or that he was telling the truth when he ‘delivered’ to the Corinthians the list of witnesses of the resurrection in verses 3-7 as he had ‘received’ from Christians who preceded him. The Greek words for ‘deliver’ (paradidomi) and ‘receive’ (paralambanomai) in this context are often used as fairly technical terms for the transmission of tradition. Almost certainly such information would have been related to Paul by the disciples in Damascus (c. 33 AD) or in Jerusalem during his first visit there after becoming a Christian (c. 35 AD). The implications of the extremely early date of this creed are worth considering in demonstrating, e.g., that belief in resurrection is probably too early to show signs of legendary development; but I’m more concerned here with trying to understand the thought processes of the early church, even though the time involved for such thinking may have been very short, in what they thought at the earliest stage about the significance of his death and resurrection, and how this might share some connection with what Jesus himself said.

Did Jesus himself believe that he was dying for the sins of many (cf. Mark 10:45) and that he would rise again according to the Scriptures (cf. Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:32)? It seems he did, if we focus just on Mark for now, in which Jesus’ very predictions of it are conceived in narrative terms.[12] But let’s look a step later first at the evangelists’ beliefs in how Jesus ‘fulfilled the Scriptures’, before looking at the plausibility of Jesus’ predicting his death and resurrection. As will be shown later below, citing Mike Licona’s essay, it is much more difficult to make the claim, as is sometimes made, that Jesus himself had no idea of the meaning of his death and certainly didn’t anticipate it (much less predict it, much less his resurrection too, for supernatural knowledge is beyond the purview of historians).[13]

It is relatively easier to claim historically (thus it is often done) that Jesus’ disciples actually didn’t have much idea of the meaning of his death during his public ministry (see, e.g., Luke 9:45; 18:34; cf. 24:45-47)[14], but that it was only after his death and (what they claimed was) his bodily resurrection they searched through their Scriptures to make sense of this harrowing yet paradigm-shifting event – so that alleged prophecies relating to him, which may or may not have been seen as referring to the Messiah earlier, were what many would call (usually derogatorily) after-the-fact. One NT scholar, John Dominic Crossan has taken this view to an extreme and proposed that the Gospels are “prophecy historicized” rather than “history remembered.”[15] For Crossan, the former – that the Hebrew Scriptures themselves provided the very sources for the details of the story – is more plausible than the latter – that memory could have so imbued the text with these Scriptural resonances. But I think with NT scholar Mark Goodacre that “scripturalization” is a better model to describe the phenomenon from our earliest Gospel, Mark (c. 65-70 AD).[16] For it is indeed a false dichotomy, I have concluded, to maintain the Gospels are either prophecy or history – did it happen or is it fictional?[17] (It seems that only the most ardent fundamentalists would go for the view that the Passion narratives were simply made up of “history remembered.”[18]) Goodacre believes it makes much more sense for the tradition which the Gospel writers received to be “scripturalised”: as he says, “The traditions generated Scriptural reflection, which in turn influenced the way the traditions were recast.”[19]

Indeed, if the Scriptures were the perfect expression of the will of God, there is no better or more powerful way of explaining that the horrific event of crucifixion was in God’s perfect plan than to narrate the very story of crucifixion using the language of Scripture.[20] Thus, as Jesus prays that what God wants will come to pass, “Not my will, but yours” (Mark 14:36,39), and in answer to this prayer there is silence (in contrast to key moments earlier (1:11; 9:7) where we hear God’s voice), God’s will, which seems to involve Jesus’ shame and abandonment, is established by what already stands written in the Scriptures. Jesus knows this as he says, as his fate is sealed by his arrest: “Let the Scriptures be fulfilled” (14:49). The Scripture in this immediate context is presumably Zechariah 13:7, “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered”, which Jesus quotes in Mark 14:27 in prediction of the falling away of the disciples; then, in 14:50-52, all forsake Jesus and flee, first the general statement (14.50, “All forsook him and fled”) and then the specific example (14:51-2, “…and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked”). But Jesus’ chilling pronouncement of letting the Scriptures being fulfilled echoes throughout the rest of the narrative.

Likewise, perhaps the most poignant of Scriptural quotations of all is Jesus’ cry of dereliction (15:34), where Jesus utters a cry that is straight from the opening verse of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[21] It has become a cliché of historical Jesus scholarship to use this as an example of satisfying the criterion of embarrassment – it is unlikely to be inventions of the early Church given the embarrassing nature of these comments of despair, which contrast with many of the Jewish martyrs that proclaim they would never forsake God or his Law.[22] But, like in other Scriptural quotations, it seems that, far from “embarrassing”, this cry is the perfect means of expressing plausibly the horror of crucifixion at the same time as reaffirming, by quoting the Psalms, that it is in God’s will.[23] On the former point, it is somewhat expected that in rendering his narrative plausible Mark would depict a crucified victim as uttering a few carefully selected words as opposed to an extensive conversation.[24] On the latter point, Mark’s desire to scripturalize the tradition subverts the readers’ expectations in saying that, somehow, honour, glory, and vindication is found in such a shameful death.

Could Jesus have predicted his resurrection/vindication though? Licona notes he could have, given his Jewish beliefs, even without requiring supernatural power (if his predictive powers are unallowable within historical investigation). If his prediction that he would be raised precisely after ‘three days’ or ‘on the third day’ is interpreted, as it is by many, to mean ‘soon’, he could have believed that the general resurrection was imminent.[25] Licona, however, notes another, weightier objection: why did Jesus’ followers fail to anticipate his resurrection if he had actually predicted his violent death and imminent resurrection by God? He notes in turn what he considers the most probable solution: “it was probably difficult for them to grasp his passion and resurrection predictions given their beliefs about what the Messiah would do in terms of setting up an earthly kingdom when he came…In favour of this option are numerous references to the weak faith of the disciples (Mt. 6.30; 8.26; 14.31; 16.8; 17.20; Mk 4.40; Lk. 8.25; 12.28; 17.6; 24.11, 25; Jn 4.48; 6.64; 14.8-11, 28-30.”[26]

While it is thus clear that both Passion and Resurrection were held to have happened according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3), why, for example, are references to the Old Testament so thick on the ground in the Passion narratives but so scant when it comes to the neighbouring resurrection stories? Was resurrection really so foreign and unexpected in Jewish thought? These questions, and related ones of general resurrection in Jewish thought in the 1st century, will occupy a later post…

[1] I have purposely, following NT Wright, not capitalized ‘god’, not out of irreverence; rather the opposite: because I am aware that not ‘all users of the word are monotheists and, within that, that all monotheists believe in the same god’ (xiv, The New Testament and the People of God). As I progress through exploring the New Testament, however, I will justify my eventual capitalization rather than presupposing it at the outset (even though I already am presupposing it, I’m endeavouring to be self-critical of my presuppositions, as I have said).

[2] I have also purposely not capitalized ‘bible’ because, as I will explain in a later post, the homogeneous label of a single canonical ‘Bible’ is arguably more a prescriptive rather than descriptive label. That is, the once separate biblia (the Greek is plural) written by individual (human) authors became, with the early Christian’s imposing of an interpretative framework that reinterpreted Old Testament passages as prefigurations or prophecies of Christ, one biblia by one (divine) author.

[3] https://bible.org/article/making-good-christian-scholar

[4] I intend ‘propagandistic’ to be used in the most neutral sense, of ‘spreading a cause.’

[5] On the post-mortem appearances see the mention of the pre-Pauline creed below.

[6] See, e.g., Philippians 2:5-11, where Paul exhorts the Philippians to have the mindset of Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be exploited; but rather emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [Kyrios Iesous Christos], to the glory of God the Father.”

[7] The question of authorship of the four Gospels, which I will deal with in more detail in a later post, is assumed to be, again (not uncritically, of course), what the majority of NT scholars claim: they are, strictly speaking, anonymous accounts which probably received their traditional attributions, amidst canonical debate against gnostic heresies, in the mid to late 2nd century AD, a century after their original composition from c. 65-95 AD.

[8] E.g. the “Son of Man” sayings (e.g. Mark 14:62), which cryptically (to Jesus’ hearers, including his disciples, though unmistakeably to later readers), allude to Daniel 7:13 where a divinely authoritative Son of Man is given glory and everlasting dominion over all nations by God.

[9] By historical-critical method, I mean merely that which aims to establish the original, contextual meaning of biblical texts and of assessing their historical accuracy.

[10] From the Glossary in Wright’s For Everyone series.

[11] Yes, it is most likely John’s words, not Jesus’s, but the point remains that it expresses the early Christian theology in a beautiful way that, arguably, has roots in Jesus’ own message of the ‘good news of God’s kingdom’ (Luke 8:1; cf. Mark 1:14-15) ushering in God’s justice, peace, and, ultimately, renewal of creation.

[12] This is particularly clear in the third Passion prediction, 10.34, which has a seven point narrative sequence: (1) going to Jerusalem, (2) handing over to the religious authorities, (3) condemning to death, (4) handing over to the Gentiles, (5) mockery, (6) death, (7) resurrection.

[13] Mike R. Licona, “Did Jesus Predict his Death and Vindication/Resurrection?” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 8 (2010), 47-66.

[14] According to Luke 9:45, the meaning of Jesus’ death remained “concealed from them” (cf. 18:34) until the risen Jesus opens their eyes (24:45-47). As David Pao notes in his notes on Luke’s gospel in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible (p. 2094): “Both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are emphasised here: because a consistent pattern of the disciples’ failure to comprehend Jesus and his mission, God has kept this from their understanding.” It is usually claimed that there is a discernible development in theology from the earlier Mark to the later Luke (c. 80s), so that

[15] See John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998).

[16] Mark Goodacre, “Scripturalization in Mark’s Crucifixion Narrative” in Geert van Oyen and Tom Shepherd (eds.), The Trial and Death of Jesus: Essays on the Passion Narrative in Mark (Leuven: Peeters, 2006): 33-47.

[17] Goodacre, 39.

[18] In this I side with the tenor of Raymond Brown’s work; see his The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels (2 vols.; Anchor Bible Reference Library; New York: Doubleday, 1994).

[19] Goodacre, 40. Goodacre illustrates this (pp. 40-41) through Crossan’s treatment of Mark 15:40-41, where, right at the end of that crucifixion narrative, there is a note about named women watching the crucifixion from a distance. Crossan sees the inclusion of women observing the burial and visiting the tomb in Mark 15:47-16:8 as “Markan redaction”, but the inclusion of the women watching the crucifixion as “received tradition…because the male disciples had fled; if the women had not been watching, we would not know even the brute fact of crucifixion” (Birth of Christianity, 559). But Goodacre notes that the phrasing of women “watching from a distance” (apo makrothen) echoes the wording of Psalm 38.11 LXX, “My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction, and my relatives stand afar off (apo makrothen).” And yet, Goodacre says, “it is unlikely, and, indeed, it is rarely argued, that Mark has invented this verse on the basis of Psalm 38.11, which does not refer solely to women, let alone to those particular named women. Rather, the traditional element gets retold in the light of the Scriptural passage that was thought to be fulfilled. In other words, in this verse we see the exact opposite of the process of ―prophecy historicized.”

Goodacre notes (p. 42) a more fundamental problem with Crossan’s logic by criticizing his inconsistency: he makes the case that the disciples fled and so could not have provided anyone with details of the crucifixion, while the Scripture associated with this event (Zechariah 13:7, “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered”), quoted by Jesus in Mark 14:27, where Jesus predicts the falling away of the disciples, according to Crossan’s model would demand that this too is “prophecy historicized”.

[20] Goodacre, 37-38.

[21] Goodacre, 46.

[22] See Licona, “Did Jesus Predict his Death and Vindication/Resurrection?”, 53.

[23] As Rikk Watts says in his notes on Mark’s gospel in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible (p. 2057), “Ps 22…proceeds from David’s certainty of God’s faithfulness to hear and vindicate his own (Ps 22:19). Jesus thus sees his death as the Messianic fulfilment of David’s deepest experience of divine abandonment (Ps 22:1-18)—in a way that no human could ever understand—but his death will just as surely result in glorious vindication and subsequent universal worship of God (Ps 22:19-31)…”

[24] Whether Jesus actually uttered these words or not – both sides to the argument are plausible in their own right and their likelihood subject to one’s weighting of eyewitness testimony in the accounts and the Aramaism – I do not know; in any case, it is hardly determinative as to whether he felt abandoned or not (he probably did in all likelihood, even if these words weren’t exactly what he uttered).

[25] That the three-day motif related to the time of Jesus’ resurrection was a figure of speech meaning a short period of time is suggested by Matthew and Luke synonymously employing phrases that are contradictory when taken in a literal sense. For example, Matthew describes Jesus’ resurrection as coming “on the third day” (Matt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 27:64), “after three days” (Matt 27:63) and after “three days and three nights” (Matt 12:40). Luke similarly employs “on the third day” (Luke 9:22; 24:7,46; Acts 10:40) and “after three days” (Luke 2:46; Acts 28:17).

[26] Licona, “Did Jesus Predict his Death and Vindication/Resurrection?”, 62.

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