The death of Jesus in the Gospels
I am holding a couple of Bible studies on the meaning of Jesus’ death tonight and next Monday here in the Hague. The following brief notes outline what I think are the main interpretive perspectives on his death in the Gospels. Next week I will look at Paul. To my mind, the main points to be grasped from these perspectives are i) that we need to make sense of Jesus’ death primarily within a (multilayered) narrative rather than systematic theological framework; and ii) that at least in the Gospels his death is understood as being not for humanity but for Israel. In essence, his death is interpreted by means of various extended stories drawn from the Old Testament that articulate a hope of forgiveness and restoration for Israel following judgment and alienation from YHWH. It seems to me that any attempt to understand his death in universal terms must first respect the historical contingency of the Gospel accounts. This is not to say that the cross has no universal significance, rather that whatever universal significance it has comes by way of its significance for first century Israel.
The wrath of God against Israel
Jesus describes his death as a cup from which he must drink. He tells the disciples that they will drink of the same cup (Matt. 20:22-23); in Gethsemane he asks that the cup might be taken from him (Matt. 26:39). In the background is the Old Testament image of the cup of God’s judgment, a ‘cup of staggering’, that Jerusalem is made to drink, which is the Babylonian invasion (Is. 51:17, 22; Ezek. 23:31-33).
The cross as a means of execution represented Rome’s punishment of rebellious Israel - and therefore represented God’s ‘punishment’ of Israel through the brutality of their enemies. Thousands were crucified during the war of AD 66-70 in order to terrify the besieged residents of Jerusalem. Josephus writes: ‘The soldiers themselves through rage and bitterness nailed up their victims in various attitudes as a grim joke, till owing to the vast numbers there was no room for the crosses, and no crosses for the bodies’ (Jos. War 5.11.1; cf. 2.12.6). Jesus’ death was not in the first place a mythical event - it was a political event, lodged tightly in the story of first century Israel under Roman occupation, and its significance must therefore be presented in political terms.
Suffering and restoration
The ‘good news’ about the imminent reign of God in the Gospels is like the ‘good news’ that is announced to Jerusalem in Isaiah 52:7-10. Indeed the whole narrative of judgment and restoration in Isaiah 40-66 is superimposed on the story of Jesus. Jesus is re-enacting that narrative for the sake of the future of Israel.
At the heart of Isaiah 40-66 - and closely connected with the announcement about the restoration of Israel following judgment - is the exquisite passage (52:13-53:12) about a servant who suffered the punishment of Israel, who was ‘wounded for our transgressions’, who made himself an offering for sin, who ‘bore the sin of many’. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 53:12 when, just before his arrest, he instructs his disciples to arm themselves: “I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’” (Lk. 22:37). The general point is that they are about to face the violent rejection that is foreshadowed in Isaiah 53. He may also allude to it in the saying that the ‘Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matt. 20:28; cf. Mk. 10:45). But if we interpret Jesus’ death in the light of this passage, we must recognize that what Isaiah describes is a suffering because of Israel’s sins.
The Maccabean precedentThe typology of the crisis provoked by Antiochus Epiphanes’ violent attempt to impose Hellenism on the Jews is crucial for understanding Jesus’ death.
The Son of man figure which Daniel sees coming on the clouds of heaven to receive a kingdom from the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7:13-27 represents the community of righteous Jews who faithfully refuse to abandon the covenant and who as a result suffer at the hands of Antiochus.
Jesus immediately evokes this story when he begins to explain to his followers that the journey to Jerusalem will end in his death. It is as the Son of man that he will be rejected by unrighteous Israel and killed by the Gentile oppressor; but as the Son of man too he will be ‘seen’ coming in glory to receive a kingdom (Matt. 16:21-28; 20:17-19; Mk. 8:31-9:1; 10:33-34; Lk. 9:21-27; 18:31-33; 24:7). In his suffering and vindication, therefore, he represents the community of righteous Israel who will remain faithful to YHWH during the coming crisis of judgment. So in the story of his own suffering and vindication he includes his followers: ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (Matt. 16:24).
How the typology could acquire atoning significance is apparent from the stories of martyrs who defied Antiochus in the Maccabean writings:
The last supper
Several cross-references point to an understanding of Jesus’ death as the means by which Israel is saved from a state of alienation from God and a new community established. The indirect association of the meal with the Passover suggests a theme of liberation from enslavement to a Gentile power. The phrase ‘my blood of the covenant’ recalls Exodus 24:8: ‘And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”’ The ‘new covenant’ of Jeremiah 31:31-34 is not explicitly alluded to, but the passage anticipates the collocation of four elements that appear in the last supper narratives: i) the idea of a ‘new covenant’ (31:31); the departure from Egypt (31:32); the confirmation of the law (31:33); and the forgiveness of Israel’s sins (31:34). Nothing in this, however, suggests a universal interpretation: Jesus thought of his death as a sacrificial act for the sake of sinful Israel.
As with the other motifs, the last supper incorporates the disciples in Jesus’story. As Paul will say, the cup of blessings is a fellowship in his blood; the broken bread is a fellowship in suffering (1 Cor. 10:16). This ‘fellowship’ (koinōnia) reflects the fact that the Son of man in Daniel 7 represents the oppressed saints of the Most High, the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is also Jacob and faithful Israel, and (see below) the sheep are refined through suffering when the shepherd is struck down.
I will strike the shepherd…
Just after the last supper Jesus warns the disciples: “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (Matt. 26:31). The quotation is from Zechariah 13:7. In the context of a prophecy of judgment against Israel, when God will ‘gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken’ (Zech. 14:2), the Lord says that his shepherd will be struck down and his ‘little ones’ scattered. Two thirds of Israel will perish; a third will be refined through the suffering, as silver and gold are refined, and will become God’s true people (13:7-9). Jesus means, therefore, that his death will be a consequence of God’s wrath against Israel, but through the affliction part of Israel will be saved.
Psalms 22 and 69
These two Psalms in particular provide a direct commentary on Jesus’ experience of suffering. Psalm 22 is indicated by Jesus’ cry of abandonment (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34), the mockery of bystanders (Matt. 27:39-43; Mk. 15:29), the division of his garments by lot (Matt. 27:35; Mk. 15:24; Jn. 19:23-24); Psalm 69 is explicitly invoked by the offering of vinegar for Jesus to drink (Jn. 19:28-29). The allusions are not merely incidental. Both Psalms speak of the severe affliction of one who is righteous and who trusts YHWH to deliver him from the hands of his enemies and from death; they conclude with the hope that God will act in the midst of crisis to establish his people and demonstrate his sovereignty in the world. Jesus reflects on his death in the light of these narratives from the heart of Israel’s scriptures about the faithfulness of God towards his people. The words ‘into your hands I commit my spirit’ in Luke 23:46 echo Psalm 31:5 in a similar manner.
The serpent in the wilderness
Jesus speaks of the lifting up of the Son of man, which is presumably a reference to his death (cf. Jn. 12:32-33), as being analogous to Moses lifting up the servant in the wilderness (Jn. 3:14-15). The people of Israel had complained against God and against Moses for having brought them into the desert to die. As punishment the Lord sent fiery serpents among them to bite them, and many of the Israelites perished as a result. Eventually Moses is told to make the image of a serpent and place it on a pole. Then if a person was bitten, they would look at the serpent and live (Num. 21:4-9). The point of the analogy is clearly that when cantankerous Israel is again under judgment, people will be saved from destruction by looking at the Son of man.