Atonement

I watched the movie Atonement last night, and couldn’t help thinking about the New Testament authors. Did the Gospel authors seek to make “atonement” for their failures much as the author in the film did? Certainly this seems to be the case in the stories of Jesus’ burial, where his burial gets more and more honorable as one follows through the canonical Gospels.

If there is something that puzzles me, it is why they felt the need to do that even when they already had a tradition that God had undone Jesus’ burial altogether. Did the traditions improving on the burial story develop independently of the story of the empty tomb? Or was it simply that in a society where nothing done subsequently could fully counteract the shame of a dishonorable burial?

Dare I ask in what other ways the New Testament authors might have sought to “make atonement” in their telling of their stories for the disappointing outcomes and their own failures in historical reality? How should we view such actions on their part? If in the end we were to conclude that, in a sense, they were the ones who “made atonement”, would that make the power of the phenomenon of Christianity seem any less?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    McG:Dare I ask in what other ways the New Testament authors might have sought to “make atonement” in their telling of their stories for the disappointing outcomes and their own failures in historical reality? How should we view such actions on their part?“The “messianic secret” is also this kind of thing, I think. in a nutshell:The only people in the story (I’ll stick to GMark as the main source of the other three narratives) who seem to recognize J‘s “messianic” role are some demon-possesed individuals who are told by him to keep their mouths shut about it. In those days, knowledge of mental illness was zilch, and it was easier to imagine that the afflicted had some super-insight into the “unknown.” But while the demons knew who Jesus was, the disciples seemed to have no idea. They just didn’t get it. This was a huge problem after the easter mystery was “revealed” to them later. They had to ask themselves, “why didn’t we know about this?”Despite the instruction to shoosh, the demons thus provide an escape hatch for the disciples; these demons explicitly anticipate the apostolic kerygma and inject it into the narrative of J‘ life. This, I think, serves as a way to compensate for the disciples’ complete ignorance about Js “cosmic function”. They could say (post-Easter), . . . “sure, Jesus never said anything about it to us, but the signs were all there after all! — yeah . . . that’s the ticket!”The “messianic secret” pericope was created because of the limitations of the companions, who knew that Jesus had never spoken of his own messiaship, yet accepted this same messiaship as a matter of course later.McG:If in the end we were to conclude that, in a sense, they were the ones who “made atonement”, would that make the power of the phenomenon of Christianity seem any less?“What phenomenal power are you refering to here?peaceÓ

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for the comment, Quixie! I think a lot of readers may not have seen the movie yet, and so may not get what I’m hinting at in this post.In a previous post I noted that John seem to acknowledge that it was from the Scriptures (rather than things Jesus had said) that the disciples concluded that the Messiah had to rise from the dead. Oh, so many questions, and so much clouding a clear line of sight to the events of that Sunday…As for Christianity as a powerful phenomenon (I didn’t actually say “phenomenally powerful”, although one could perhaps argue that too if one were so inclined), I would think that that is simply a matter of historical record: Christianity has certainly had a powerful impact on history, and on numerous individuals. My question was whether, if this impact turned out to be the impact of what the disciples wrote rather than anything that Jesus himself said or accomplished, would that in any way change the meaningfulness of the stories and their impact. And if we were to become sure this was the case, would anything be gained by the honesty of acknowledging it (to paraphrase the movie)? :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    Hi James:I’ve not seen the film, but I understand your point. Good post, btw.McG:if this impact turned out to be the impact of what the disciples wrote rather than anything that Jesus himself said or accomplished, would that in any way change the meaningfulness of the stories and their impact.“I would answer this by saying:1- No, it would not change the impact, as the damage (or blessing, depending on one’s view) is already done — two thousand years of impact cannot be taken back. 2- However, the meaningfulness of the stories would HAVE TO change if we found out that all the ado surrounding the burial was really about the disciples seeking atonement for their limitations (which, btw, I think is a very good and tenable position, one that resonates with me strongly). Further, I think that it would be our intellectual responsibility (indeed, our mandate) to re-interpret the stories in such new light, if that turned out to be the case.My favorite Meister Eckhart quote is:”Truth is something so noble that if God could turn aside from it, I could keep to the truth and let God go.“cheersÓ

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Does not the Criterion of Embarrassment presuppose that air-brushing embarrassing events is exactly what is assumed to go on in these sort of texts so that any embarrassing bits left in the text retain a greater verisimilitude? I would have to say “yes” to the question of whether the power of the Gospel events would seem less. Seems like the resurrection would be a candidate for historical glossing by the survivors. N T Wright wrote a whole book trying to prove that the events on surrounding Easter were true. I don’t think he would be satisfied with a symbolic or mythological meaning. Perhaps the readers of GMatthew were equiped to weave midrashic content into their understanding in an appropriate way. Today, however, men like Spong are unusual in their willingness to embrace the meaning of legend.


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