Substitutionary Atonement Once Again

  • In order for God to forgive sins, a substitutionary sacrifice must be offered. (page 107)

  • For most of us who are Christian, this understanding is rooted in childhood and reinforced in our liturgies.

  • Hence it is important to realize that this is not the only Christian understanding of Jesus's death.

  • This understanding first appeared in fully developed form in a book written in 1097 by St. Anslem, archbishop of Canterbury. (page 108)

  • Anslem presupposes a legal framework for understanding our relationship with God.

  • This common Christian understanding goes far beyond what the New Testament says.

  • "In particular, we will argue that the substitutionary sacrificial understanding of Jesus's death is not there at all in Mark."

  • We most commonly hear the story of Jesus's death as a composite of the gospels and the New Testament as a whole.

  • For example, only Matthew has the scene of Pilate washing his hands of the blood of Jesus and the cry of the crowd, "His blood be on us and on our children." (27:25)

  • Only Luke has the story of Jesus appearing before Herod Antipas as well as three of the "last words" of Jesus. (page 108)

  • The story of Good Friday in John's gospel contains much more dialogue between Jesus and Pilate.

Mark's Story of Good Friday

  • As the earliest gospel, Mark provides the earliest narrative of the crucifixion. (page 109)

  • "That Paul, the earliest author in the New Testament, uses multiple interpretations leads to an important point: there is no uninterpreted account of the death of Jesus in the New Testament." (page 110)

  • The followers of Jesus in the years and decades after his death sought to see meaning in the horrific execution of their beloved master, whom they saw as God's annointed one.

  • Mark tells the story of Good Friday in precisely indicated three-hour intervals.

    • from dawn (6 AM) to 9 AM

    • from 9 AM to noon

    • from noon to 3 PM

    • from 3 PM to evening (6 PM)

From 6 to 9 AM

  • Mark 15:1-21

  • To refuse to respond to authority reflects both courage and contempt. Authorities do not like it. (page 111)

  • As history remembered, the story about Barabbas is difficult. But if we set in Mark's historical context as he wrote around the year 70, it makes considerable sense.

  • Both Barabbas and Jesus were revolutionaries, both defied imperial authority. But Barabbas advocated violent revolution and Jesus advocated nonviolence.

From 9AM to Noon

  • Mark 15:22-32

  • Crucifixion was a form of Roman imperial terrorism. (page 113)

  • It was not just capital punishment, but a very definite type of capital punishment for those such as runaway slaves or rebel insurgents who subverted Roman law and order and thereby disturbed the Pax Romana (the "Roman peace").

  • It was always as public as possible.

  • What made it supreme was not just the amount of suffering or even humiliation involved, but that there might be nothing left or allowed for burial.

  • On the cross was an inscription: "The King of the Jews" (page 114)

  • Pilate intended it as derision and most likely saw it mocking not only Jesus, but his accusers

  • Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified between to "bandits." The Greek word translated "bandits" is commonly used for guerilla fighters against Rome, who were either "terrorists" or "freedom fighter," depending upon one's point of view.

From Noon to 3 PM

  • Mark 15:33

  • The darkness is the product of Mark's use of religious symbolism. In the ancient world, highly significant events on earth were accompanied by signs in the sky. (page 115)

  • The darkness from noon to 3 PM is best understood as literary symbolism.

From 3 to 6 PM

  • Mark 15:34-41

  • Mark narrates two events that provide two interpretive comments about what has happened. The first is the tearing of the temple curtain. (page 116)

  • This event is best understood symbolically and not as history remembered.

  • That the curtain torn in two has a twofold meaning. On one hand, it is a judgement upon the temple and the temple authorities. On the other hand it is an affirmation.

  • To say that the curtain, the veil, has been torn is to affirm that the execution of Jesus means that access to the presence of God is now open. This affirmation underlines Mark's presentation of Jesus earlier in the gospel: Jesus mediated access to God apart from the temple and the domination system that it had come to represent in the first century.

  • The second interpretive comment is the exclamation by the Roman centurion that "Truly this man was God's Son." (15:30)

  • In this exclamation of the centurion responsible for Jesus's execution, empire testifies against itself.

  • The presence of the women reminds us that Jesus's men followers were not present. They have all fled. (page 117)

  • Why would first-century Jewish women (and slightly later, gentile women) be attracted to Jesus? For the same reasons that first-century men were, yes. But in addition it seems clear that Jesus and earliest Christianity gave to women an identity and status they did not experience within the conventional wisdom of the time.

  • The subversion has been denied by much of Christian history, but it is right here, in a prominent place in the story of the climactic events of Jesus life. (page 118)

6 PM and the Burial of Jesus

  • Mark 15:42-47

  • Pilate's granting Joseph's request for the body of Jesus to be buried is a remarkable departure from customary procedure since, as mentioned earlier, the body of a crucified individual was not given an honorable burial. (page 118)

Jesus's Death as Sacrifice?

  • We return to a common Christian understanding of Jesus's death: that it was a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world. (page 119)

  • The broad meaning refers to sacrificing one's life for a cause.

  • In this sense, one may speak of Jesus sacrificing his life for his passion, namely, for his advocacy of the kingdom of God.

  • The more specific meaning of sacrifice in relation to Jesus's death speaks of it as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, a dying for the sins of the world. This understanding is absent from Mark's story of Good Friday; it is not there at all.

  • There is only one passage in all of Mark that might have a substitutionary sacrificial meaning.

  • "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (10:45)

  • "To many Christians, the world 'ransom' sounds like sacrificial language, for we sometimes speak of Jesus as the ransom for our sins. But it most certainly does not have this meaning in Mark. As already mentioned, the Greek word translated as 'ransom' (lutron) is used in the Bible not in the context of payment for sin, but to refer to payment made to liberate captives (often from captivity in war) or slaves (often from debt slavery). A lutron is a means of liberation from bondage." (page 119)

  • "Thus to say that Jesus gave 'his life a ransom for many' means he gave his life as a means of liberation from bondage." (page 120)

  • The context of the passage in Mark supports this reading. The preceding verses are a critique of the domination system. The rulers of the nations lord it over their subjects. "It is not so among you," Jesus says. Then Jesus uses his own path as an illustration. In contrast to the rulers of this world, "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a lutron -- a means of liberation -- for many."

  • And this is a path for his followers to imitate: so it shall be "among you."

  • How then does Mark understand Jesus's death?

  • He sees Jesus's death as an execution by the authorities because of his challenge to the domination system.

  • As such, Mark understands Jesus's death as a judgement on the authorities and the temple. Judgement is indicated by the fact that, as Jesus dies, darkness comes over the city and land, and the great curtain in the temple is torn in two. And a Roman centurion pronounces judgement against his own empire, which has just killed Jesus: "Truly this man -- and not the emperor -- is God's Son." (page 120)

Mark's Use Of The Jewish Bible

  • At several points in his story of Good Friday, Mark echoes and sometimes quotes the Jewish Bible.

  • Many of us who grew up Christian were taught that the relationship between the two testaments is one of prophecy and fulfillment.

  • These not only demonstrated that Jesus was the Messiah, but also proved the truth of the Bible and thus Christianity -- only a supernaturally inspired scripture could predict the future so precisely.

  • It easily and naturally, if not inevitably, leads to the inference that things had to happen this way.

  • The Jewish Bible was the sacred scripture of early Christians, and many of them knew it well, whether from hearing it orally or being able to read it. Thus, as they told the story of Jesus, they used language from the Jewish Bible to do so. (page 121)

  • This practice produced what we call "prophecy historicized." A passage from the past (in this case, from the Jewish Bible) is "historicized" when it is used in the narration of a subsequent story.

  • It is an attempt to connect that newer story to the earlier tradition and lend credibility to it.

  • The point, rather, is the use of passages from the Jewish Bible in the telling of the story of Jesus and what such use suggests about the interpretive framework of the narrator.

  • Now we focus on Mark's primary use of the Jewish Bible, namely, his frequent citation of Psalm 22. (page 122)

  • How are these references to be understood?

  • Within the framework of "prophecy historicized," they are seen as the product of Mark's use of the psalm as a way of interpreting the death of Jesus.

  • As part of the Jewish Bible, Psalm 22 is a prayer for deliverance. The prayer describes a person experiencing immense suffering and intense hostility.

  • Mark's frequent use of language from this psalm suggests that he and his community saw the death of Jesus this way. It was the suffering and death of one who was righteous, condemned by the powers of this world, and who would be vindicated by God.

Divine Necessity Or Human Inevitability?

  • Did Jesus's death have to happen? There are two quite different reasons why one might think so. One is divine necessity; the other is human inevitability. (page 123)

  • By the time Mark wrote, early Christianity had already developed several interpretations of the death of Jesus.

  • The story of Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery affirms that even the evil deed of selling a brother into slavery was used by God for a providential purpose. (page 124)

  • Like the storyteller of Genesis, early Christian storytellers looking back on what did happen ascribe providential meanings to Good Friday. But this does not mean Good Friday had to happen. (page 125)

  • Human inevitability -- this is what domination systems did to people who publicly and vigorously challenged them.

  • Jesus's passion for the kingdom of God led to what is often called his passion, namely, his suffering and death.

  • To think of Jesus's passion as simply what happened on Good Friday is to separate his death from the passion that animated his life.

  • The language of substitutionary sacrifice for sin is absent from this story. But in an important sense, he was killed because of the sin of the world. It was the injustice of domination systems that killed him, injustice so routine that it is part of the normalcy of civilization. Though sin means more than this, it includes this. And thus Jesus was crucified because of the sin of the world. (page 126)

  • Was Jesus guilty or innocent? The question will seem surprising to some, but it is worth reflecting about.

  • Was Jesus guilty of advocating violent revolution against the empire and its local collaborators? No.

  • As Mark tells the story, was Jesus guilty of nonviolent resistance to Roman oppression and local Jewish collaboration? Oh, yes.

Last built: Fri, Jul 18, 2014 at 1:25 PM

By Frank McPherson, Sunday, April 13, 2014 at 6:24 PM. Shut up and eat your vegetables.