Reflecting on Jesus and His Death

*The following is a guest book review by Lawrence Gracia.  Kurt does not necessarily endorse all of its content. Enjoy!

It is quite fascinating that among the thousands of ignominious crucifixions performed by the Romans within the first-century, either side of Jesus of Nazareth, that his and his alone, set forward a chain of events that would go on to forever alter history. That within decades, Jesus’ fate on the “dreaded wood” as they called it began to be interpreted as everything from a cosmic sacrifice for sins to that of God’s great act of faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant begs for the historian and theologian alike to make sense of the matter. Especially, as to exactly how and on what terms Jesus himself may have understood his possible demise. It is this great historical question that Scot McKnight’s Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Death of Jesus and Atonement Theory seeks to answer. McKnight asks:

Did Jesus think he would die prematurely? If so, what point in his life did that occur to him? from the outset? Following the death of John the Baptist? After he was opposed by the leaders? Or, only after he entered Jerusalem that last week? Furthermore, did Jesus think about his death in saving terms? Did he think it was of more than martyrological value or not? And if not, what are we to make of the continued witness of the church to the atoning value of his death?

Of course, to answer such questions in a postmodern world McKnight must face the charge that the modernist historical quest of a century ago is said to be a historian’s power play that is “all rhetoric, all discourse, all language, and in effect all autobiography.” In order to refute this charge McKnight navigates the terrain between the trenches of modernist and postmodernist historiographical theory concluding that what is needed in this era of historiography is a “chastened post-modernist modernism,” a sort of modernist quest that now knows “our narratives are not equivalent with the past, and they (postmodernists) remind us that our narratives need to be held lightly with the obvious potential of being revised and even jettisoned, but they cannot steal from us this: that our narratives either more or less cohere with what we can know about existential facts and their contexts in such a way that we can derive a narrative that approximates truth.” A satisfactory answer if you ask me. Moreover, I was pleasantly surprised that this historical quest wasn’t necessarily going to be a skull and bones re-presentation—a sort of lowest-common denominator of what the historical method has left over, once having devoured the Gospel tradition. Rather, McKnight’s proposal would be a narrative representation that considers the evidence guided, as it were, by a hermeneutic of love that operates on a basis of trust rather than a priori suspicion.

Having dealt with the historical question McKnight’s Jesus and His Death goes on to evaluate the various proposals of scholars concerning how Jesus may have perceived his own death, ranging from Schweitzer’s wheel of the great Tribulation to the suffering servant motif championed by T.W. Manson. All in route to the central question, “How is it possible for a Jew who believed in God’s sovereign and providential care, who surely believed that God had accomplished forgiveness through the sacrificial system of the temple—especially Yom Kippur, and who preached the arrival of the long expected kingdom that was interrelated to these themes about God and forgiveness—how it even possible, we must ask, for such a person suddenly to think his death was the sacrifice of all sacrifices, the end of the temple system, and a sure atonement for all people?” This question brings to surface the possibility that the church’s soteriological interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion may have differed from how Jesus may have conceived the matter. McKnight writes:

It matters, then, to many creedal Christians that Jesus’ death occurred and for some it matters what Jesus thought of his death. It matters for some, too, that what early Christians thought about the death of Jesus is in some sense consonant both with what happened and with what Jesus thought of his death. Was his atonement theology arbitrarily imposed on the Jesus traditions or was it organic evolution from the Master himself?… To the texts we now must turn.

It is when we turn to the texts themselves armed with our hermeneutic of trust yet not without a critical eye to what may be later theological imposition that we can begin to reconstruct how Jesus may have understood his own death. McKnight argues that the place to begin is with what can be properly labeled the “bookends” of orientation. These, for McKnight, are to be located in the sixth request of Matthew’s “Our Father” prayer where Jesus petitions God to “lead us not into temptation,” and the Gethsemane prayer in Mark where in the context of “test/temptation” Jesus requests that his Father remove the “cup.”

Once we understand that the “testing” wasn’t what we usually regard as an individual temptation to sin, but rather the great time of testing that was to befall Israel in the end of days preceding the final kingdom of God, we can begin to uncover the framework of how Jesus saw his own fate within the final chapters of Israel’s story. Jesus, for sure, had already considered his probable fate after John the Baptist met a bad end under Herod Antipas. Thus, as a “Scripture prophet” Jesus began combing the Scriptures to “lend significance to his death” landing on prophets like Daniel, Zechariah, and possibly Isaiah to identify the tenor and tone for his forthcoming death. McKnight goes on to write:

Jesus sees in his death a foretaste of the imminent judgment of God on the city of Jerusalem for recalcitrance. Thus, he sees his fate and Jerusalem’s fate tied together, perhaps so closely that one speaks of the other. The eschatology inherent in such an understanding of Jesus, and his desire for the city to turn from its ways confirm the interpretation offered. Jesus evidently, at this time, in his life sees no hope for the city to turn; the judgment is inevitable, and he will go down as part of the city’s defeat.

All of this plays out when Jesus marches his way south to Jerusalem for what he perceived as the final Passover/Pesah, what for him would essentially be a new Exodus. Jesus, however, would take the role of the sacrificial victim allowing those who participate in his death to “be redeemed from the affliction” when God passes over them to judge unfaithful Israel. This plausible historical-narrative representation makes sense of why the early church began to attach unheard-of theological significance to Jesus’ death, not because they created it ex nihilo, but precisely because Jesus himself set the precedent of attaching grand theological significance to his death. Thus, the high views of Jesus’ death witnessed in the prologue of John or the first two chapters of Hebrews is not antithetical to Jesus’ vision of his own death, but organically linked to it.

Surprisingly, McKnight’s book doesn’t end there. Before concluding, he goes on to examine the various interpretations of Jesus’ death throughout the rest of the New Testament. This brief excurses, filled with outstanding insight, reads like theological icing on the historiographical cake. Over all, this book is a serious piece of history that can sit on the shelf next to the New Testament, lending it historical nuance and insight. If one desires to grapple with a sound historical enquiry into how Jesus may have understood his own fate then I highly recommend this book.

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Lawrence is the Senior Teaching-Pastor of Academia Church in Goodyear, Arizona. He is a pastor devoted to the educational growth of his congregants, and the raising up of a new generation of disciples, who will think, tell, and live out the Christian story. Lawrence is currently attending Liberty University.

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  • Mike Ward

    I put this review into a reading level calculator I found on-line and got a reading level of grade 16! I’m not sure how accurate that is, but it conforms to what I suspected.

    The paragraph that begins, “Of course, to answer such questions in a postmodern world McKnight…” was particularly incomprehisible to me so just for fun I put it into the reading level calculator and got a grade level of 25!!! TWENTY-FIVE!!!! That’s 13 years beyond highschool!!!!

    The long quote from McKinght buried in that paragraph which begins, “our narratives are not equivalent with the past…” evaluated by itself scored a 32!!!!!!! That’s 16 years past high school. It had a NEGATIVE ease of reading score. (I didn’t even know that was possible.)

    Again, I don’t how much stock to put in these numbers. And if there are typos correcting them would probably help lower the numbers. But, in any event, I have no idea what either McKinght or Gracia are trying to say.

    This reply is on a seventh grade reading level.

    • LawrenceGarcia

      Mike, I apologize for the level at which I reviewed the book. The book was actually a challenging read for me as well. One has to be a bit informed on the postmodern historians’ critique of modernism’s quest to write “objective,” presupposition-aless history using objective criteria (“historical method” as some call it). So the book becomes mélange
      of philosophically charged historical discussion. In this sense, the book aims at a particular audience, making it difficult for the uninformed non-specialist to pick up and read off bat. So reviewing the book’s hefty philosophical-historiographical content is extremely difficult with 800 word limit (which I blew by the way). It is the sort of review that deals with a small percentage of readership that are interested in this particular topic and discussion. I hope this doesn’t dissuade you from the book, it is a challenging book, but worth taking the time to learn what’s going on in the historians’ chamber. I must also apologize for density of the review as I normally try to capture the writing style and content of the book itself, giving the reader a “taste-test” so to speak of the book at hand.

      • Mike Ward

        If the gospels are taken as–well–”gospel” then Jesus obviously knew the significance his death would have.
         
        But from a modern historiographical perspective that the gospels depict Jesus as aware of his pending death’s significance is not the end of the story. It is, in fact, barely even the beginning.
         
        All four of the gospels were written years if not decades after Jesus’s death, and the oldest extant manuscripts of the gospels were written centuries after that. Therefore, from a purely historiographical point of view, what the gospels say Jesus said tells us more about what 2nd, 3rd and 4th century Christians thought of Jesus’s death than it tells us what He thought about it.
         
        From your review, I take it that McKinght takes an–if you will–more “scholarly” approach to the question than “the bible tells me so” to show that even from a modern historiographical approach he can come to the same conclusion: yes, Jesus new he had to die and he knew why.
         
        Is this correct?

        • LawrenceGarcia

          Though the theoretical dating was not, as far as I recall, central to the discussion, the question is more along the lines of “Can historians write historiography without it telling us more about the historian than the figure that it attempts to write about?” McKnight’s proposal is that we can indeed write history, though we must be open to the fact that we are inevitably apart of that retelling and therefore must be open to critique. McKnight, might have also preferred to call it  a “chastened post-modernist modernism,” not “modernist historiography” per se. From where I stood, it appeared that the aim of the book following this historiographical discussion was to tease out how Jesus himself may have percieved it outside of the redactors’ theological edge on the crucifixion. So in part sir, you are correct :)

          • Mike Ward

            Is his aim to show merely that history CAN be written or to take it a step farther to show that, that is what the gospel writers did?

            It’s one to show that it is possible to write a history that tells more about the subject than it does about the historian, but it’s another to show that any particular historian has succeeded in doing that.

          • LawrenceGarcia

            His aim was to illustrate that a purely “objective” historical retelling of a historical figure may indeed be impossible (this much post-modernism reminds us) but that we can indeed, in some sense, say what happened without fooling ourselves that our reconstructions are “objective” (a chastened post-modernist modernism). He employs an example using a retelling of a baseball game to prove that this can indeed be done. And no, “what the Gospel writers did” was not the concern of the work as much as what McKnight can do a historiographer in a post-modern era that is skeptical about our abilities to do history in any objective sense.

          • Mike Ward

            I cannot image why it isn’t flying off the shelves :)

          • LawrenceGarcia

            lol No, it won’t be found on a shelf at your local Barnes And Noble.


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