Saved by God from God?

Saved by God from God? March 30, 2018

The crucifixion of Jesus makes perfect sense as an expression of the wrath of the Romans against Jesus. But it is not at all self-evident as an expression of the wrath of God against Jesus, even if a wrath purportedly aimed at us which Jesus stepped in front of. Crucifixion was too common an occurrence in Jesus’ time for one particular crucifixion to stand out as indicating this, without some substantial commentary and interpretative interventions. The fact that most of us have never witnessed an execution, much less so many as to make them commonplace, allow many to read the story of Jesus today as though his being lifted up from the ground, nailed to a wooden beam, made him stand out rather than blend in with the crowd.

For us, Jesus is “the crucified.” For the early Christians, the question was rather how Jesus can be the Messiah despite appearing to be just another crucifixion victim.

And that leads to questions that intersect with widespread but incredibly problematic views of atonement. In the view of many, God requires death as payment for sin. Even if one grants that, it doesn’t answer the question of why crucifixion. Why not let Jesus die of old age? It could be the long, drawn out, agonizing death that many elderly people have experienced. It could be more tortuous than crucifixion and last far longer. Months, years of agony, wracked with pain. Pick the ailment. Pick several. They would all make for a natural – literally, but also metaphorically – expression of death as it is experienced by humanity in general, born by Jesus.

And so let me say once again what I said at the outset:  The crucifixion of Jesus makes perfect sense as an expression of the wrath of the Romans against Jesus. But it is not at all self-evident as an expression of the wrath of God against Jesus. One can certainly interpret the death of Jesus theologically – as his earliest followers did, trying to explain how the Messiah could have been crucified, presumably in accordance with a divine plan. But one must start with the level of historical explanation – why would the Romans have crucified Jesus? Starting anywhere else does not lead naturally to the cross specifically.

Even with it being Good Friday, and even having a draft blog post with some relevant ideas and materials already in place, I still didn’t expect to blog about this. But then I had someone draw my attention to an article in Christianity Today – one that helpfully challenged the widespread assumption that the crucifixion of Jesus coincided with a rupture in a Trinitarian Father-Son connection. My conversation about the article, and comments on it, led to the discussion that sparked the post above.

It is one of the major problems with the penal substitutionary interpretation of the cross that it views God as the problem rather than the one offering the solution. But if there are two things that are consistently said throughout the Bible, including in connection with the activity of Jesus, it is that God is forgiving, and God is the one reaching out to humans despite our rebellious and wayward tendencies. Penal substitution, on the other hand, has God needing to be appeased, unable to look upon us or even upon Jesus when bearing our sins, as though sin were an object that could be slid from one person onto another. It is a problematic viewpoint through and through, as I’ve emphasized repeatedly in the past (which means that I can direct you to those earlier posts if you are interested in hearing more on the topic).

See too Matthew Distefano’s blog post on the subject, and also Michael Roberts’ in which he wrote:

In a sense the Four Gospels do not tell us why Jesus died, but the accounts are incredibly moving and may reduce us to silence. Many composers have put them to music, and none are better than Bach with his St Matthew Passion and St John Passion.

At times explanations can be crude as with the view that God punished Jesus instead of us. This comes out with some popular preaching, but it makes God seem unreasonable. Far better is to see Jesus submitting to injustice on our behalf and showing that the way of suffering for and serving others is the way of hope.

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  • MileHiArchitect

    Thanks for bringing this inconsistency to the table. Lately, I’ve wrested with an extension of this conversation. Instead of solely viewing Jesus’s death as a path to forgiveness for us, what does his death really ask of his followers? The Sunday School answer is fairly simple: we are to pick up our cross and follow him. But what does that look like today when Christians are often members of the dominate religious and socio-economic group? I see your point about Jesus submitting to injustice, and I find echoes in the civil rights movement. How do we truly follow him?

  • John MacDonald

    I really don’t think it’s necessary to suppose “penal substitution” to understand the importance of the crucifixion for the early Christians.

    Maybe, in the resurrection appearance claims present, for instance, in the Pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed, the first Christians saw Jesus as greater than the Roman emperors, who also are said to have escaped death. In this regard, Rome tried to enforce its mighty power against Jesus by killing him, but the Hebrew God’s power was greater and He resurrected Jesus.

    Justin Martyr writes:

    “What about your dead emperors, whom you always esteem as being rescued from death and set forth someone who swears to have seen the cremated Caesar [Augustus] ascending from the pyre into the sky?” (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 21.3).”

    Randel Helms points out that:

    The syncretic flavor of Mark is at once evident from his reproduction of a piece of Augustan imperial propaganda and his setting it beside a tailored scripture quote. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE): “Whereas… Providence… has… brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar… who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior…, and whereas… the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.”

    Mark 12:17 also seems to establish that only trivial things are to be rendered unto Caesar, whereas the true esteem is to be given to God. And who can forget Jesus’ assault on the Roman loving, corrupt temple cult? Paul also makes a note that Jesus was crucified by the rulers of this age (1 Corinthians 2:8), and so Christ’s resurrection flies in the face of Rome’s supposed power over the Jews.

    Craig Koester’s “Revelation” commentary says:

    “The section climaxes by noting that [Jesus] holds seven stars in his right hand (Rev 1:16). This cosmic imagery conveys sovereignty. An analogy appears on a coin from Domitian’s reign that depicts the emperor’s deceased son as young Jupiter, sitting on the globe in a posture of world dominion. The coin’s inscription calls him “divine Caesar, son of the emperor Domitian,” and the imagery shows him extending his hands to seven stars in a display of divinity and power. John has already identified Jesus as the ruler of kings on earth (1:5), and the imagery of the seven stars fits the book’s larger context, which contrasts the reign of Christ with that of imperial Rome. (p. 253).”

    Brandon D. Smith comments on Koester’s “Revelation” commentary that:

    “Koester is referring to the coin in the image used in Rome around AD 88-96 during the reign of the brutal Caesar Domitian. Koester’s insights here give us an interesting look at the background of John’s writing during hostile Roman persecution. It also helps us think about the later date of Revelation’s writing (the end of the first century) versus a potential earlier dating (some say it might’ve been written closer to AD 65). This is enough to chew on a little bit… But it offers us more than that. This information helps shed light on the theology of Revelation. First, it shows us that much of Revelation’s imagery (beasts, numbers, etc.) are direct shots at the Roman empire. Many believe (and I could be convinced) that Revelation is written during intense Roman persecution and this letter was first written to encourage the Church during that time. However, as a non-preterist, I believe portions of the letter are speaking of future events—i,e., Jesus hasn’t come back yet; the New Jerusalem isn’t here yet; etc. In any event, this note might help us better understand the anti-imperial leanings of John… Second, it shows us how high John’s Christology was. He’s not merely putting Jesus on par with some exalted or glorified person. Rather, he’s portraying Jesus as divine—specifically pitting Jesus’s true divine sovereignty against the supposed divine sovereignty of the Roman emperorship. Roman caesars liked to pretend to be gods, but John is reminding them and us that there’s only one true God. Jupiter is seated on the world with stars hovering around him? Ha—Jesus created the world and clutches the stars in his hand. As I argue in my thesis, John explicitly and purposely ties Jesus into the divine identity of YHWH, and this little note only adds to the case.”

    Perhaps Jesus as “surpassing Caesar” is more pervasive in the NT than originally thought.

    And Jesus’ resurrection as flying in the face of the Roman act of crucifying him may have had a scriptural basis in Hebrew scriptures for the Jews of that time. Paul’s understanding of the crucifixion as Christ dying “according to the scriptures” is one of Jesus being “hung on a tree” in the sense explained in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul writes:

    “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree (Galatians 3:13).”

    This is Paul’s interpretation and application of Deuteronomy, which says

    “His corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:23).”

    So, the crucifixion/resurrection seems to have the meaning of the power of the Hebrew God flying in the face of the supposed power of Rome trying to destroy Jesus, just as God’s power earlier in Hebrew scripture surpassed that of Egypt when Moses confronted pharaoh.

    • There has been a lot of work on Jesus as alternative to Caesar. And I think it is important to add that it provides a framework for exactly what is meant by the divinity of Jesus in the New Testament. It is the same kind of divinity that emperors had. They did not become the highest god at the top of the pantheon. They underwent an apotheosis and became part of the divine realm.

      • John MacDonald

        There is a real contrast about the object of worship. Are you going to worship an imperial emperor/god whose power base comes from the violence of war and remains in power because of the sword, or a pious, moral prophet/teacher who advocates love of God, neighbor, and enemy, and was chosen by God?

        • John MacDonald

          It’s fascinating to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in this Easter season. Jesus reminds me of Socrates, who welcomed a Martyr’s death and even thought his poison a cure for life (“Crito, let us offer a rooster to Asclepius”). Maybe Jesus felt it was his divine command from God to die a crucified death at the hands of the Romans so his disciples could invent a resurrection story that portrayed Jesus as greater than the Caesars (see a possible model for this “Noble Lie” with 1 Kings 22:21-22). The Gethsemane pericope certainly seems to portray Jesus as terrified, believing it was God’s plan for him to die (hung on a tree, as Paul says – Jesus may have died this way to fulfill scripture, just as he rode in on a donkey to Jerusalem to fulfill scripture). The Jews were under the imperial thumb of Rome, and along came an alternative entity for worship, and for understanding how to live and what to believe in. Like the Caesars, Jesus escaped death, but unlike the Warlike Caesars Jesus represented high moral values like love of God, neighbor and enemy. And Jesus was portrayed as even greater than the Caesars who also escaped death because the resurrected Jesus was being portrayed as the “first fruits” catalyst of the general resurrection of souls at the end of days. What could be better in luring in converts than threatening them that the end of the age was imminent so they better get with the right team and start loving God, neighbor, and enemy?

          • John MacDonald

            Jesus’ resurrection flies in the face of the authority of the Romans who were convinced they had the power to destroy him.

      • John MacDonald

        I think that this conception of the Caesars and their divinity being the framework for understanding Jesus’ divinity is a strong argument against mythicism.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    When I think of the crucifixion, I think of the martyred sons in 4 Macc. executed under Antiochus Epiphanes. They saw their execution as a product of the sins of the nation and saw their righteous sacrifice as something that would move God to pity Israel and deliver her from the tyrant. They ask God to accept their deaths on behalf of the nation.

    So, the idea isn’t exactly that the sons are dying to satisfy God’s wrath against Israel per se so much as that Israel, having broken her covenant through national sinfulness, finds herself under the reign of a tyrant, and the deaths of the sons are sort of like signal flares. Sort of an “enough is enough” statement in terms of the people languishing under the covenant curse.

    From a strictly historical perspective, Rome executes Jesus because they fear he is going to lead the Jews in an insurrection and establish himself as King of the Jews over and against Roman governorship. But the theological commentary on this, while still being grounded in the concrete historical situation of Israel, does have a concept of the wrath of God behind it, I think – not in the sense that God is angry with individuals because they have sinned, but because the nation has broken faith with God and is suffering the curse of their covenant.

    • Nick G

      From a strictly historical perspective, Rome executes Jesus because they
      fear he is going to lead the Jews in an insurrection and establish
      himself as King of the Jews over and against Roman governorship.

      In what sense is that a “strictly historical perspective”? What evidence is there that the provincial Roman authorities – let alone “Rome” – took Jesus that seriously? There’s no reason to think he was known outside Galilee, or that there was any prospect of the more sophisticated Jews in Jerusalem followng him. “This hayseed’s causing trouble – make an example of him” seems to me a more likely level of concern. If they had been really worried, the authorites would have taken immediate steps to round up and execute Jesus’s associates.

      ETA:

      Crucifixion was too common an occurrence in Jesus’ time for one particular crucifixion to stand out as indicating this [God’s wrath], without some substantial commentary and interpretative interventions. – James Mc Grath

      By the same token, it can’t be taken to indicate that the Roman authorities attached much importance to Jesus.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        I think we’re saying the same things. What do you mean by “this hayseed’s causing trouble?” Isn’t the “trouble” a potential insurrection?

        If my neighbor next door announces that he’s king of the United States of America and assembles a cell of people around him, and they go around gathering more followers, local government is going to do something about this regardless of their estimation of this person’s chances of success. I doubt the President would get involved or the National Guard called in, but that doesn’t change the fact that the reason this person is “trouble” is the potential for what might happen if left unchecked, even if nobody thinks my neighbor will successfully conquer the USA.

        I didn’t say Caesar mobilized an army to take him out. The gospel narratives have all of this happening at a pretty local level, but the motives are still political ones, regardless of the level of concern anyone might have had about how far out of hand. You can’t have a gang of people wandering around building influence with the people around a rival political power, even if they’re just holed out in a compound somewhere.

        If I’m wrong, then what “trouble” is the hayseed causing?

        • Nick G

          Isn’t the “trouble” a potential insurrection?

          No. If the tradition that Jesus overturned tables in the Temple, is correct, he could have caused a riot, necessitating Roman intervention.

          If my neighbor next door announces that he’s king of the United States of America and assembles a cell of people around him, and they go around gathering more followers, local government is going to do something
          about this regardless of their estimation of this person’s chances of success.

          Really? Surely not if they remained unarmed and merely preached turning the other cheek and the imminent end of the world.

          You can’t have a gang of people wandering around building influence with the people around a rival political power

          That assumes Jesus actually had a significant following outside the backwater of Galilee. I’m sceptical.

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            No. If the tradition that Jesus overturned tables in the Temple, is correct, he could have caused a riot, necessitating Roman intervention.

            So your contention is that the Romans crucified Jesus because, even though they didn’t crucify him for the actual disruption in the Temple, they thought he might cause a bigger riot later and decided to head that off at the pass?

            Really? Surely not if they remained unarmed and merely preached turning the other cheek and the imminent end of the world.

            That’s a good point, but the followers of Jesus don’t remain unarmed. He instructs them to arm themselves, presumably to force a crisis with law enforcement – Luke 22:35-38.

            Also, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that Jesus preached about the imminent end of the world. He did warn about the imminent end of the age at the hands of a prospective Roman invasion, presumably because he saw the course things were on. In addition, you have to keep in mind that, this whole time, Jesus is teaching that he is the Son of Man as well as the expected Jewish Messiah and their rightful king, claiming that he is their lord.

            Once again, how -successful- the local Roman powers thought he might be at this is up for grabs. Maybe nobody thought it would amount to anything and, as you say, it was primarily to make an example.

            But an example out of what? What message are they trying to send? How about the one Pilate actually wrote out to display at Jesus’ crucifixion? – Matt. 27:37

            The whole “king of the Jews” thing was a big part of Pilate and his cohort’s treatment of Jesus, probably not leastaways because there was a Roman-appointed “king of the Jews” already.

            It appears to me that the documents we have skew heavily toward the political claims. It seems more likely to me than the local Romans observed Jesus turning over tables in the Temple and decided some time later that he might start a riot they’d have to stop.

            Judea had its share both before and after Jesus of insurrectionists and Messiah claimants and rebels and insurgents. It seems quite reasonable that these are the sorts of things that province of Rome was interested in putting down and not simply some generic “trouble.”

            That assumes Jesus actually had a significant following outside the backwater of Galilee. I’m sceptical.

            David Koresh did not have a significant following outside of Waco, Texas. He didn’t even have a significant following inside of Waco, Texas.

            I think you and I agree on pretty much most of this; I just think you’ve decided that Jesus would have had to have successfully amassed a huge, potentially military force to warrant a response from Roman power on the basis of his political claims – as if they would have to view him as a serious contender for the throne. I don’t think that’s necessary.

            But like I said, I think we’re in general agreement, here.

          • Nick G

            You seem to believe that every detail in the gospel accouints of events leading up to the crucifixion is true. I don’t. I don’t think we know much about what Jesus actually said, given that the earliest written accounts date from a couple of decades after his death, and were written by people who considered him to be of immense importance, and were writing with very definite proselytising aims. I very much doubt that the Romans knew what claims he was or was not making, or that this would have made any difference if they had. Making a disturbance in the temple (assuming he actually did so) would have been quite enough in itself for them to label him a troublemaker, and where non-citizens were concerned, there was very little in the way of legal rights or formality. I don’t credit the accounts of his “trial” before Pilate; I doubt Pilate was even more than fleetingly aware of his existence, if that. I would guess some subordinate would have handed him a list of those to be crucified, he’d have signed it, end of story as far as he would have been concerned.

            ETA: Incidentally, what do you suppose Jesus meant by referring to himself as “the Son of Man”? I’ve seen it suggested somewhere that this was just a phrase like the modern “Yours truly”, or “Muggins” – a way in which anyone could refer to themselves. After all, what does it mean if taken literally? Surely any male human being is a “Son of Man”?

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            I don’t think everything in the gospel accounts literally happened, no, but they are the primary historical documents we have describing these events, so if I’m going to approach the matter from a historical perspective, the contents of those documents are very important. I can’t approach the matter from “What Nick G Thinks Is and Isn’t Credible in the Gospel Accounts” and it would be unfair to critique me on those grounds.

            For me to approach the matter from your reconstruction of what you think really happened would be a -less- historical way for me to approach the data. Like you, I have to come up with my own reconstruction. I’m not saying it’s wrong to have your own ideas about what did and didn’t happen; I’m just saying that my analysis isn’t less historical because I failed to take your views into account. Your views are entirely plausible and I don’t have any particular problems with them, but they’re your hypotheses, not necessarily mine.

            The phrase “Son of Man” means different things depending on context. For example, in the visions recorded in Ezekiel, God refers to him as “Son of Man,” which probably means “human being” and underscore the fact that Ezekiel is merely a receiver and reporter of these visions as opposed to God who will bring the events about.

            But when Jesus in his trial says, for instance, answers the question as to whether or not he is the Messiah with what Matthew 26:64 says, “You have said so, but I tell you from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven,” this appears to be an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14.

            In that vision the Son of Man is a figure who receives an everlasting kingdom from the Ancient of Days after he destroys his enemies. For Daniel, the Son of Man figure represents the faithful Israelites who do not yield to the pagan empire that has dominion over them. You can see why Jesus (or someone writing about Jesus) would apply that concept to Jesus under a corrupt Temple power structure working in conjunction with the Roman powers.

          • Nick G

            Thanks for your response w.r.t “Son of Man”. The contents of historical documents are important, but so is the context: the circumstances in which they were written, and the plausibility of the events they recount, given what else we know or can reasonably infer. But there doesn’t seem any point in pursuing this further.