Good Friday: Spoiler, Summary, Stomp

The student who presented today in my class on the Bible shared this meme image:

That Jesus dies is a spoiler only in the sense that the sinking of the ship is a spoiler for those who watch the movie Titanic. But what is noteworthy in the attempts at humor is the penchant for this to be thought of as the crucial moment in the Bible’s narrative, the turning point in history. And as a result, for some, it is viewed as the entirety of  what the Bible is about – as expressed in this image:

It is not inappropriate to take the occasion of Good Friday to reflect on the death of Jesus. But if one sums up the entirety of the Bible or the entirety of the life of Jesus in terms of “Jesus died” – even with the addition of “for you” – then one has probably failed to understand what is going on in the New Testament writings when so much attention is focused on the cross.

The idea that the crucifixion of Jesus is the key moment in history misses the importance the resurrection had for the early Christians. But even setting that point aside, the focus on the crucifixion is the result of the early Christians trying to make sense of what had happened to Jesus. The expectation regarding an “anointed one” of the line of David was for the restoration of the kingship to David’s dynasty. For someone claiming to be the awaited figure to then be executed by the Romans would have seemed to mean one of two things: God’s promises have failed, or the figure in question wasn’t really the one they were waiting for.

Christians managed to come up with a third option: God’s plan included the death of the Messiah.

Bo Sanders puts the matter nicely when he writes, “Believers, in those first few centuries, retro-fitted divine intention and design into Jesus’ death.”

From a contemporary progressive Christian perspective, this retro-fitting seems more problematic than the problem it was meant to solve. Saying that God’s plan is for specific individuals to meet horrific fates raises all sorts of issues that are perhaps best left for discussion separately or in the comments on this post.

It makes more sense, for me personally, to emphasize that Jesus represents what happens when someone dares to envisage a kingdom in which the poor are raised up, the oppressors are brought low, the marginalized are invited to be full participants, and all the other things that Jesus talked about.

Because unless we take seriously the fact that the cross, historically speaking, was human power seeking to stamp out a vision of human existence that was at odds with the aims of those in power, then we will not only fail to grasp the underlying core of events at the heart of these Christian stories.

We will also fail to understand why it it that we are so eager to focus on Jesus’ death interpreted as a sacrifice, and so reluctant to focus on his death as something which might happen to his followers if they genuinely follow in his footsteps.

This can be related to current events involving a classroom activity which asks students to stomp on the name of Jesus written on a piece of paper. The story at the center of early Christianity is about Jesus being stomped on by the powerful. Yet through the twists and turns of history, Jesus has become a symbol of power and privilege for some. Now, in response to someone proposing stomping on the name “Jesus” written on paper (in this case, as part of an exercise which was aimed precisely at illustrating the power of symbols, such as the name of Jesus has become), people who think they are following Jesus are eager to stomp on the professor.

There are two options for contemporary Christians. One is to treat the story of Jesus as about one who lets himself be stomped on, just so that his eventual stomping on them in retaliation is all the sweeter.

The other is to view Jesus as having really meant that retaliation is to be eschewed altogether.

I choose the latter. And I am glad that the occasion of Good Friday provides an opportunity to reflect on this important question at the heart of major divide between two different understandings of the Christian faith today.

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Elsewhere in the blogosphere, do note the tackling of claims about pagan origins of Easter by Tom Verenna and Tom Breen (HT Joel Watts) and Tom Verenna. Brian Renshaw has posted the Greek text of John’s passion narrative with vocabulary helps (HT Jim West). Tim Kimberley has a GPS version of Holy Week. And Krista Dalton relates the death of Jesus to the death of the Bible.

  • Mikail2

    James, as I’ve probably told you in the past, unlike you, I no longer consider myself a Christian in any sense of the word, but if all Christians had similar views to you, this world would be MUCH better place. I have no problem with your kind of Christianity. Unfortunately, as far as I know, you are definitely in the minority…..which is sad. Happy Easter to you.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      A happy Easter to you too!

  • Nick Gotts

    The other is to view Jesus as having really meant that retaliation is to be eschewed altogether.

    Can you be more specific? For example, does this imply complete pacifism? Does it just imply eschewing revenge for the sake of revenge? Or something in between?

  • Nick Gotts

    Sorry – I bungled and misplaced the blockquote. I intended:

    The other is to view Jesus as having really meant that retaliation is to be eschewed altogether.

    Can you be more specific? For example, does this imply complete
    pacifism? Does it just imply eschewing revenge for the sake of revenge?
    Or something in between?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      If you’re logged in, you should be able to edit comments rather than just post new ones.

      There is a long history of people taking Jesus’ sayings about nonviolence and nonretaliation literally. Ironically, most of those who claim to be literalists today don’t do that.

      • Nick Gotts

        Thanks for the information about editing. Yes, there’s a long history of taking just about everything Jesus is supposed to have said in several different ways. So how can his alleged sayings be an ethical guide?

  • Herro

    “The other is to view Jesus as having really meant that retaliation is to be eschewed altogether.

    I choose the latter. ”

    So you think that all the talk about hell and brimstone wasn’t actually said by Jesus? You think that Jesus didn’t envision god punishing people?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      It is hard to say about at least some of the details. Certainly “hell” is an English word which denotes a concept informed by a great deal that Jesus did not say. But as someone interested in principles and not merely slavishly following any ancient person’s thought, the issue is ultimately whether the core principles Jesus taught are compatible with retribution, and not whether he always followed through on those principles consistently.

      • Nick Gotts

        How do you know there were any “core principles Jesus taught”? That’s claiming a great deal. Many teachers, particularly those who deliver their teachings orally, are thoroughly inconsistent: they say what is convenient to the practical needs of the moment, or what they think sounds pithy, or just what comes into their heads. So the hypothesis that there were such principles at all (let alone what they were) needs justification.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          It’s a conclusion based on the work that historians and other scholars have done, sifting through the Gospels in a highly skeptical manner in an attempt to determine what, if anything, can be attributed to Jesus himself with a high degree of certainty. Among those are the summing up of the commandments in terms of two that are said to be most important – loving God and neighbor – and a relativization of concerns for purity and ethnicity as a consequence thereof.

          • Nick Gotts

            I’d be grateful if you could recommend one or two books or articles covering that specific topic. I’m not widely read in Biblical studies (on the historical Jesus I’ve read a Vermes, a Crossan and an Ehrman) but I know the historical context fairly well. I have access to a university library.

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              For something with a classic approach but relatively recent, E. P. Sanders has several books, including especially The Historical Figure of Jesus which tries to give an overview that brings together his conclusions about many details, but also reflects mainstream scholarship.

              A couple of others come to mind, but perhaps rather than something general, you might want to dig into a monograph on Q or on some specific saying?

              • Nick Gotts

                Thanks very much – I’ll start with the Sanders, as the library has a copy.

      • Herro

        Do you want me to use the word ‘Gehenna’ instead of ‘hell’?

        I think it’s problematic to maintain that Jesus had some core principle X, if a major part of his teachings (the stuff about angels throwing people into furnaces of fire and so on) is contradictory to that supposed principle.

        And like Nick points out, it’s hard do see on what basis one thing is considered to be more of a “core principle” than the other, if there are any! Why couldn’t I just say something like: “When Jesus said that the wicked would burn he really meant it! and the stuff about eschewing retaliation must be interpreted in light of that core principle.”

        just to be clear, do you think that Jesus actually was some kind of an apocalyptical prophet or do you believe in a ‘hippie-Jesus’ like Crossan and some others?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I am much more in the apocalyptic prophet direction, by far. It certainly does seem that some of the emphasis on final judgment is the work of Gospel authors. Matthew in particular takes the Golden Rule and converts it into an eschatological principle: what you do unto others, God will do unto you. But that may ultimately have roots in the teaching of Jesus.

          I think that a careful study of what someone said can often allow us to draw conclusions about core and periphery. But of course, in this case we only have what others recorded, meaning that the teaching already reaches us interpreted and refracted.


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