"Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again." James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus, saying, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And He said to them, "What do you want me to do for you?" They said to Him, "Grant that we may sit, one on your right and one on your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" …The Gospel of Mark 10:33-38
That Problematic Cross…
Why did Jesus die? The majority of scholars searching for the historical Jesus would agree that this question is the most difficult of all to find a plausible, historical and creditable answer. Before I even begin to explore and attempt to respond this question, I want to make two things clear: first, there is a considerable matter of scholarly disagreement on the issue and secondly, there is no one, simple, obvious answer to the question. However, if you have any interest in the historical Jesus and believe the death of Jesus holds some significance to Christian faith then it is an issue one must face.
Crucifixion was one of many ways criminals were executed by the Roman Empire in the ancient world. The fact that Jesus wasn't stoned, hanged, beheaded or killed in some other ways reveals a few interesting details. Firstly, it makes clear that the Roman authorities were responsible for the actual execution. This practice was reversed for the lowest of the low, mostly for those who threatened and or defied Roman authority. It is crucial to understand how horrible crucifixion was in the eyes and mind of both the public and the criminal.
The Cross of a Criminal…
There was no one way of crucifying a criminal, rather a variety. Crucifixion included flogging beforehand, with criminals made to carry their own crossbeams to the execution site. The criminal arm's could be lashed or nailed to the beam, and his legs were spread against the sides of the upright beam or placed one on top of the other in the centre, his feet or knees were then nailed. If the soldiers conducting the execution wished to inflict more pain, the criminals would be stabbed or impaled. The pain experienced by the criminal was extreme, not from the wounds but rather from the lack of air flow. Crucifixion could last for days until the criminal died after hours of struggling to breathe from suffocation however their legs could be broken to haste the death by asphyxiation. Regardless of the Hollywood idea of Jesus being crucified on a distant hill, the execution usually took place clearly in the public eye, generally a major cross road, or along the road entering the city, or somewhere close to the city. Being so exposed to the public, the criminal was the victim of savage ridicule and civic embarrassment to anyone associated with them.
Contrary to the Easter artworks, those sentenced to crucifixion were naked when attached to the cross, in full view of the masses and were not taken down for a burial. This was of massive significance to the Jewish faith. To the Jews, the exposure of one's corpse, especially hanging from a 'tree' was tantamount to a curse from YHWH. Rather, their bodies were left to hang until the dogs and crows had their way with the corpse. The cross stood as a symbol of the power, authority and control of Rome and reminder of the fate that awaited those who would dared defy it.
As John Dominic Crossan explains, "Without minimizing the extended and excruciating pain, which was temporal, the shame of non-burial, which was eternal, was equally feared. In the ancient mind, the supreme horror of crucifixion was to lose public mourning, to forfeit proper burial, to lie separate from one's ancestors forever, and to have no place where bones remained, spirits hovered, and descendants came to be with the dead. That is how Jesus died."
In the Shadow of the Cross…
I find it hard to believe that Jesus was completely naïve and unaware of the opposition building against him as he and his followers made their way from Galilee to Jerusalem. Understand that Jesus made a conscious decision to go to Jerusalem, and he knew that with the things he was saying and the things he was doing, would get him killed sooner or later. For one, he was known to be in the same league as John the Baptist, someone's who rebelliousness ended in beheading. Another thing was his words and deeds about the Kingdom of Heaven, a subject full of violent and revolutionary overtones and something the Romans did not like at all. In Roman and Jewish eyes, talk of the Kingdom would stir up the people and arouse revolt within the nation. In short, I would agree with Edward Schillebeeckx, when I say that Jesus must have undoubtedly reckoned with the possibility of execution. To me, it is clear that Jesus' death was a reaction to his public ministry. Pontius Pilate was a prefect known for his brutal retaliation to any form of rebellion in Judea, and would have had no problem whatsoever in crucifying any type of would-be Messiah — innocent or guilty.
Yet, how would someone like Jesus view such a destiny?
The question we face in relation to his death is two-fold, either Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing he would die, or Jesus went to Jerusalem to die. This is a question that has divided scholars for years, especially among conservatives. I personally would argue the former as I don't see how one can argue that Jesus both willed and sought after his death as the means in which the Kingdom would come, as viewed by Albert Schweitzer, N.T. Wright and William Lane Craig. However, I do not believe that Jesus would have regarded his death as a disaster or failure.
Rather, it would be a stone along the path to achieving his goal. It would be his ultimate word about the Kingdom and deed for the Kingdom. While he was certain about his message, he knew it would face rejection, and as his message was rejected so was he. Yet as Israel's true messiah, he followed the path YHWH had laid before him right from the moment of his baptism, to the Galilean countryside, into the company of the sinful and those beyond-the-pale, right to Jerusalem, right to the Temple and right to the cross. Jesus was aware that the way to the Kingdom and enthronement would be the way of denial, rejection, suffering and death. I believe Schillebeeckx hits the nail on the head of Jesus' understanding when he says, "Jesus would live just as he died, and die just as he lived." He would not just simply, announce and proclaim the Kingdom, rather he would also act it, live it and ultimately die it.
The way of the cross, became the way of the Messiah.
The True Messianic Task…
All along, Jesus as the prophetic and messianic Son of Man knew his path would be full of rejection and suffering, and yet his assurance in his vocation to the Kingdom and acceptance of YHWH's will was unshaken. His life would be a life of loyalty to YHWH, the one he had come to know as 'abba' Father, and to the service of the Kingdom's message and people. Just as his life was a part of the mission, so would his death, the Last Supper and Gethsemane seems to have brought Jesus to the edge … to the fork in the road. Surly Jesus had enough time to escape and simply flee into the desert if he knew his life was at risk. Yet, he didn't run, why?
It is clear that prophetic vocation entailed a violent end but the messianic vocation demanded a victorious and glorious end. If Jesus explained that death was part and parcel of his messianic task, to the eyes and ears of his followers and opponents would make absolutely no sense. But by that same token, Jesus had radically reshaped and redefined the reality of the Kingdom. Why, in the face of death would this change? The reality and truth was that: one must go the extra mile. One had to turn the other cheek. One must judge not or judgement would fall on them. For one to love one's enemies as much as one loved one's self. The paradox that saving one's life was losing it and losing it, saving it took its sense from the destiny of Jesus, which would lead one into the Kingdom, out of exile and into restoration.
I argue that Jesus did not aim to suffer and die, but he found meaning and his destiny in his suffering and death. The cross would not be the central symbol and act for the Kingdom, but rather the ultimate symbol and act of the Kingdom. It seems to me that Jesus knew it had to be this way, and while the road before him would be dangerous, long and full of peril, it was the only way he could go if he was surely the true Messiah. He wouldn't go completely solo rather in spirit, he would be strengthened by prayer and enriched by scripture, with texts such as the Son of Man's suffering at the hands of the Beasts, the Psalms that spoke of disappearing and death, the dark night of Zechariah, and the suffering servant of YHWH found with Isaiah. My guess is that through these texts, in his service to the Kingdom, out of obedience to the one he knew as 'abba' Father and by his call and vocation to be the Messiah, Jesus knew this is the way it had to be.
Jesus knew that this was the only way the true Messiah could go and only by this strange and extraordinary way would Israel win the victory, would Israel be redeemed, would the Messiah be glorified and would YHWH be enthroned.
And so, he would drink the cup set before him and undergo the baptism prepared for him.
Salvation In and Through Suffering…
Many Jews since the prophets Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and other prophets held the belief that deliverance and restoration would come from a time of intense suffering. The idea was that the whole world, particularly Israel, would go into a vortex of pure evil that would be like a women in labour. This time was seen as a period of great tribulation and testing, with horrible suffering and darkness. However, at the end, the new age would dawn. The Kingdom would come through and out of this suffering. I have come to understand that Jesus wished to take on this suffering head on.
Jesus in declaring himself to be the Son of Man, the figure representing Israel in Daniel, he proclaimed himself to be Israel's representative. I suggest that Jesus identified himself and his mission with the oppressed Israel in need of redemption and he himself was the agent in which YHWH would bring this redemption about. To Jesus, as the herald of the Kingdom, only through his suffering would the Kingdom come. His sufferings would be the birth pangs of the new age. As in Second Isaiah, the suffering of the Servant of YHWH would heal the nation. As in Daniel, the pain of the Son of Man would overthrow and brinbg death to the monstrous beasts resulting in Israel's vindication. As in the Psalms, the forsaking, the suffering, the pain and the death of YHWH's servant would glorify God and restore Israel. As in Zechariah, the death of the shepherd would bring forth the Kingdom and result in YHWH becoming king of the world.
The path presented was the way of suffering, humiliation, abandonment and death yet through this path, Jesus believed that Israel's long night of suffering and exile would end, surly the Kingdom would come and at long last, YHWH would be king.
The Cross and the Covenant…
Truly, it is from the cross that the covenant's real problems come clear. The problem is not Rome, but Israel in her violent hopes, her sins of flirting with pagan nations and her plans of bloody rebellion. The result of which can only lead to crucifixion, more suffering, more death and more executions but this time on a national level. Still, even on the cross, Jesus offers his way, his way of being Israel. Jesus repeatedly associated his own death with this coming national disaster; a foretaste of the suffering to come and this is clear when he tells the weeping women, "Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, 'blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.'… For if they do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?" (Luke 23:28-29, 31)
He was the green tree, full of peace and innocence and the children around the feet of the women were trees turning dry, full of violent aspirations and revolutionary dreams. He had not lived by the sword but rather by the heart and nor had he flirted with foreign powers but rather denied them. In walking in the path of the Kingdom as the Kingdom's true Messiah death would bring forth the Kingdom, renew and restore the covenant, enthrone YHWH and ultimately defeat the power of evil.
Jesus' kingdom would defeat evil, but not by crushing evil with the sword, rather by subjecting it to the way of denial, service, peace and love. As Ben Meyer explains, "By subjection to evil Jesus would render it impotent. Betrayal, desertion, repudiation would only promote and realize his aims. By submitting to evil he would take its measure, establish its futility, and shape it to his only purposes." Or as N.T. Wright puts it, "It was to become the symbol of victory, but not of the victory of Caesar, nor of those who would oppose Caesar with Caesar's methods. It was to become the symbol, because it would be the means, of the victory of God."
Around him, his life, his message and his death would the new Israel and new covenant be formed and based. His death would win the victory for YHWH and the Kingdom. His body broken and his blood slipt all for the sake of the Kingdom were within his calling as the true Messiah. He has done for Israel what Israel could not do for herself, so equally, he encouraged his followers, members of the new Israel and the new covenant, to do like likewise 'in memory' of him.
'In accordance to the Scriptures'…
Was it necessary, you may ask? I would argue that it was as equally necessary as it was inventible. What might be seen by us as inventible, could be equally seen by someone else as necessary. My point is that, Jesus understood his death not be in vain but in accordance to the scriptures and the will of YHWH. Understand, when I say, 'in accordance to the scriptures' I do not mean in the slightest that Jesus was providing some messianic 'proof-texts', while some texts like the ones I have listed above might have enriched his sense of messianic vocation but what I am getting at is the whole story of Israel. Jesus did not have "a messianic check-list" and at the bottom he had highlighted "die for the sins of the world", rather, Israel and her hope, her exile, her sin and her redemption were from the beginning seen by Jesus through the lenses of the cross.
Jesus would take a leap into the great unknown, a vast darkness, following a path hidden but on the other side, there would be light. To Jesus, summed up in the cross was the hope of Israel, the message of the Kingdom, the promises of the prophets, and the task of the Messiah and the victory of YHWH. The cross would not be the central symbol and act for the Kingdom, but rather the ultimate symbol and act of the Kingdom.
His messianic claim and vocation would appear bizarre to the masses, but to Jesus it made perfect sense.
What Should have Happened…
In the everyday order of things, the wheel would have just kept on turning. Jesus would have just seemed as another would-be failed Messiah, and once again the power and authority of Rome would have been proven to the masses and his followers. This is made obvious when studying the Twelve's reactions as they leave him and deny even being associated with him for fear of facing the same fate. Jesus should have been king. Jesus should have defeated the pagans. Jesus should have succeeded.
However, in their eyes, it was clear that Jesus had failed.
Another dead loved one, another lost Kingdom hope, another sign of Roman tyranny and another failed would-be Messiah. They would not have continued to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. They would not have claimed that he was raised. Even with Jesus' request to continue the work of the Kingdom in face of the crucifixion I am sure they would not have continued 'the Jesus cause' in fear of the same fate. If Jesus and his Kingdom had failed what point would there be in continuing his message? Many suggest that it was because they saw a great truth within his message but I assure you they would not have preached and been martyred for and over a 'good idea', or 'good moral teachings', or a 'heavenly example'.
They would have gone back to their everyday lives, attending their fields or flocks, going back to the fishes and boats, or perhaps even found another figure in Galilee to place their messianic hope in. If anything they would attempt to remove any connection they had with him. Their time with Jesus would have become a small reflection, a past life and or a distant a memory.
However, if this was their plan, it didn't stay that way for very long, for something unique and unexpected was about to happen. Something that would change their lives forever, how they viewed the world and even God...
What are your thoughts on this commentary?