Chapter 1 people: the murder of Jesus and the absence of God

The gospels name two groups of people as responsible for the murder of Jesus:

1. The religious leaders of the Jewish people

2. The Roman imperial administration under Pontius Pilates.

With regard to 1. It is reasonable to remember that probably by the time the gospels were written, the Jewish Temple had been destroyed by the Romans and the synagogue Jews and the Jesus Jews had separated in enmity. It seems likely that the picture given of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and their legal experts (scribes) by the gospel writers may have transferred the open enmity experienced in their own times back into the time of Jesus and explained it as a quarrel about the nature of the Torah, the Law of God, as well as Jesus’ claim to be an authoritative interpreter of it. Modern examinations of Pharisaic teaching and Jesus’ teaching cannot find the differences which would have justified such antagonism or the very negative depiction of the Pharisees given in Matthew Mark and Luke, far less the depiction of those called Judaeans in the gospel of John.

Of course religious antagonism is not always rational; and the challenge of Jesus to the authority of established teachers and leaders may have been the root of it. If Jesus insisted on his own unique authority as much as the gospels show him doing, then we may understand why any traditional religious community might oppose his apparent arrogance. Matthew depicts him as a teacher of radical wisdom, Mark as a revelation of God’s goodness, Luke as prophet of truth, John as the announcer of a divine love available only to those who believed in him, and all of them as the Messiah/ Son of God. It seems likely that someone remembered in those ways would arouse suspicion and enmity from established religious leaders, namely the chief priests, as well as the teachers of the holy law and supporters of local synagogues, namely the Pharisees.

My judgement remains however that because of subsequent open enmity between followers of Jesus and the Jewish synagogues, we cannot wholly trust that the content of gospel passages involving the Pharisees is free of distortion. This places question marks against accusing the Jewish religious establishment of the major rôle in the murder of Jesus.

To understand why he was murdered it may make sense to start with the fact that the Roman authority put him to death as a messianic pretender. The Romans had some experience, and were to have more, of Jewish religious leaders who engaged in jihad against their rule. They understood that the claim to fulfil messianic prophecies, and to be sent by God to announce his kingdom, could result in open revolt which would cost Roman lives as well as Jewish. They almost certainly had a network of informants who would report on any local religious movement that might cause trouble. Pontius Pilatus did not need Jewish leaders to tell him about Jesus; he had his own information.

The Roman suspicion of Messiahs would have been shared by the Chief Priests, who feared the terrible damage caused by revolts to the lives of their people and to the continuation of the Temple cult. Indeed the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the ultimate dispersal of the Jewish people in 135CE were caused by Messianic revolts. Given the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire, sensible leaders counselled an acceptance of its rule provided it did not encroach on their religious activity. The High Priests also would have had their informants, who may have characterised the Galilean rabbi as messianic and dangerous.

The above analysis suggests that whereas the gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution may be generally accurate, the specific detail given by each may be more imaginative than historical. They give no sources for the information they convey. At the time of Jesus’ arrest, it is probable that none of the followers of Jesus were eyewitnesses of his trial ; and that few saw his crucifixion. They give, in any case, somewhat irreconcilable accounts, as they do of the resurrection. My conclusion is that although we must deal with the gospels as holy writ, we must interpret their witness to Jesus’ murder as theological rather than historical, as imaginative story rather than reportage. Of course there will have been a historical memory of what happened to Jesus, built from personal involvement and details sourced from soldiers, slaves and other participants. But we are not given this. Rather we have four different imaginative versions whose aim is to communicate the divine reality of the historical event. I propose to look at the Markan account which influenced all the others.

There are quotations from the Hebrew Bible in Mark’s version, -such as from Daniel chapter 7 re the Son of Man, and Psalm 110 re Jesus at God’s right hand – which by are important; but beyond these there are whole stories from that Bible which influence the whole of Mark’s story of Jesus’ murder:

1. Passover. This association is given by the narrative of the Passover meal. Originally the blood of a lamb smeared on Jewish houses meant that God’s spirit who killed the first-born of the Egyptians passed over the Jewish families. Certainly some believers saw Jesus as the sacrificial lamb whose blood protected them from the wrath of God. It’s possible that Mark saw the murder of Jesus as terrible parody of the Passover, in which Jewish people murdered the eldest son of God. Beyond the specific connections however there is the fact that the murdered Jesus is seen as leading his people in a new exodus, into a new covenant.

2. Covenant. Jesus spoke of his blood as being of the new covenant. The Mosaic covenant was accompanied with the blood of oxen, while the people committed themselves to the laws of God while God promised to bless the people and lead them to a good land. The prophet Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant by which God would write his laws on his people’s hearts, and forgive their sins. The book of Hebrews which may have been written by the time of the gospels speaks of Jesus’ blood, given once and for all as a sacrifice to God, being effective in establishing a new and greater covenant with God.

3. The suffering servant. The songs of the suffering servant are found in Isaiah chapters 40-55, the so-called “second Isaiah.” They are meditations on an ideal servant of God, who incorporates elements of great leaders and prophets, along with the history of Israel itself. Chapter 52:13 – 53: 12, speaks vividly of “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” whose suffering brings others healing and peace with God. Details of this song, such as the silence of the servant, his being led like a lamb to the slaughterhouse, and his tomb being with the rich, are influential in all narratives of Jesus’ murder. The servant took upon himself the sins of others, although it is emphasised that he was not being punished by God, but brutalised by human violence. God, seeing his sacrifice, loads on to him the sins of others and forgives them. The influence of this profound chapter is evident throughout all the New Testament witness to Jesus.

4. Psalm 22. Individual lines are significant to Mark, like its opening cry of abandonment which Mark puts on the lips of Jesus, and those about the division of his garments. But it is the lonely desperation of verses 1-21 upon which he focuses. Like the psalmist, Jesus is in terrible pain and bodily indignity. Like the psalmist is is cruelly mocked. Like the psalmist he trusted in God, only to find himself in this extremity. Doubtless the Psalmist’s praise of his rescuing God was also noted by Mark, but he chose not to use it in his story. The fact that the cry of abandonment is Jesus final utterance in the gospel indicative of Mark’s strange and astonishing theology; how can this be good news?

5. The pattern of Jesus’ healing, set out in Mark’s gospel. Mark is rigorous in establishing this pattern: 1. Jesus encounters need. 2. Jesus enters into a place of danger/ taboo/ evil /death. 3. Jesus heals the needy person(s). This is a distinctive pattern, seen for example in the healing of Jairus’ daughter where Jesus literally enters a place of death, breaking the social taboos, and raises a child to life. “Time to get up,” he tells her. Mark intended his narrative of Jesus’ murder to reveal the same pattern, on a vaster scale. His death and resurrection say to humanity, “Time to get up.” Because this theme is Mark’s own we may reckon it as the one he intended to be most significant for the understanding of Jesus’ death.

I now want to resume my earlier imagination of Jesus as the one in whom God is human. He was able to discern in any event which he encountered, the persuasive presence of God, and by his own faithful response, to reveal that presence as good news for people. In God he consciously lived and moved and had his being. The pattern imagined by Mark mentioned above is shown by the gospel writer to be part of Jesus’ battle against evil, which is also God’s battle. God cannot perfect his world without human partnership because God has given human beings the power of free will. Jesus is the one who understands what Paul calls the weakness and foolishness of God. The German theologian murdered by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, also understood: God is weak in this world, he said, so he gets pushed out of the world onto the cross.

In his healing ministry, Jesus constantly sides with the weakness of God, entering the places owned by the “strong man” Satan, boldly channelling God’s persuasive goodness, putting his own reputation and sometimes his own safety at risk for the sake of the suffering person. In these events Jesus is already and always the crucified Lord.

Mark’s narrative of the arrest, trial and murder of Jesus reveals the same pattern in the greatest detail. The whole event of the murder and the resurrection is imagined by the author as a new Passover in which Jesus is the willing victim who is slaughtered so that the power of death may pass by his people. His is the blood of a new covenant, a new intimacy between God and his people. He is the suffering servant acquainted with grief upon whom the evil of the world in unloaded. He is the one who trusted God and becomes a worm, not a person.

The narrative emphasises the willingness of Jesus, even against the desire of his own soul, to model the persuasion of God. The ease with which worldly powers can do their will is shown in the Sanhedrin, the Roman Governor , the crowd and the soldiers. They do the talking, they make decisions, they act, while Jesus is silent; subject to their decisions, he suffers. The scriptures witness to the fact that this kind of suffering is all too common in the lives of those whom have served God. It has always been very easy to refuse the persuasion of God, to kill the protester, torture the opponent, bomb the rebels, rape the wives of the foreigner, crucify the disturber of your peace. Jesus is silent as God is silent before the inexorable pressure of religious and political power. This takes courage, of which Mark wants us to know that Jesus is capable, while Peter is not. Staying with the persuasion of God is not a walk in the park. He above all retained his humanity while his torturers lost what little of it they possessed.

So can Jesus defeat the evil to which he is subjected, by maintaining his bond of love with God? If he can show that bond as unbreakable in the face of evil and death, then surely he will have won a victory. But Mark has respect for the power of evil; he refuses to show Jesus as a stoic hero untouched by his suffering. “My God,” he howls “why have you abandoned me?” The persuasive presence of the father is not any longer experienced by Jesus in his moment of most need. What is this? What use is a God who cannot even give emotional succour to his beloved son who is being murdered? Is not this a profound disgrace? Luke recognised this and gave Jesus more trusting words before he died. Mark gives the reader a hint: the curtain in the temple which separated the holy area from the holy of holies is torn apart at the moment of Jesus’ dying, just as the heaven was torn open at the moment of his baptism. God, the eternal one is torn open in the mission and suffering of his beloved son. God is not active at Jesus’ side because he is suffering with him; he also is weak and wounded. In this moment when their partnership is torn apart, when their lives are shredded, they are most completely united in their suffering. In case we haven’t picked up the clue, Mark adds the testimony of the centurion, that this man is a son of God, which reminds us of what God said to Jesus at his baptism, You are my dear Son; I am delighted with you. Jesus, God’s son refuses to be separate from the persuasive love of the father, while the father refuses to be separate from the agony of the son. Together they deprive evil of its power. Together they share a life undefeated by evil and death. This is the shared life, the communion of the Holy Spirit, the life of God’s future, in which “those who endure will be rescued”

Yes, this goes bit beyond Mark, but not much. I am imagining Mark imagining Jesus.

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