Good Friday: the death of Jesus in narrative-historical context

It has been stated a number of times in recent discussions here that only a divine Jesus could atone for the sins of the world. The death of a mere man is simply not big enough or significant enough—metaphysically speaking—to account for such a massive outcome. Since it is Good Friday tomorrow, I will take the opportunity to explore this argument in a little more depth. The selection of texts may seem arbitrary, and I may have missed some important ones out. But they seem to be the ones that give us most to go on.

I can understand that once we have reached the consolidated theological position that Jesus is fully God and fully man, it may seem necessary to read that ontology back into everything that is said about him in the New Testament, including what is said about his death. But I am at a loss to see how the case might be made as a matter of biblical interpretation. If we read historically rather than theologically, forwards rather than backwards, the efficacy of Jesus’ death as an act of atonement appears to rest not on ontology but on a concrete act of faithful obedience within the narrative of Israel. As I see it, therefore, the task we face is to wrest Jesus’ death from the sphere of an abstract metaphysics and return it to the apocalyptically constructed account of what God was doing with and through first century Israel vis-à-vis the nations.

The blood of the martyrs

Jewish precedents do not raise the expectation that God himself must suffer, must die, in order for his people to be redeemed. The typology of sacrifice in the Old Testament at no point requires an identification between the animal sacrificed and God. The “servant” of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, who was wounded for Israel’s transgressions”, who “bore the sin of many” in Israel, etc., is a human figure. Nothing in the passage suggests that for his suffering to have had redemptive effect for Israel he needed to be more than human. Texts which speak of the atoning value of the death of the righteous do not worry that their sacrifice is invalidated by the fact that they are merely human (see my The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, 81):

I, like my brothers, give up body and life for our ancestral laws, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by torments and plagues to make you acknowledge that he alone is God and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation. (2 Macc. 7:37-38)

And these who have been divinely sanctified are honored not only with this honor, but also in that, thanks to them, our enemies did not prevail over our nation; the tyrant was punished, and the homeland was purified, since they became, as it were, a ransom for the sin of the nation. And through the blood of those pious people and the propitiatory (hilastēriou) of their death, divine Providence preserved Israel, though before it had been afflicted. (4 Mac 17:20–22)

The emerging paradigm—so far as it goes—is of a righteous or innocent Jew who suffers because of the sins of his people, whose death may avert the wrath of God towards his people, and who in the end will be vindicated for his faithfulness. This goes a long way towards accounting for the significance of Jesus’ death. The difference only really appears in the narrative context.

Why have you forsaken me?

To the extent that the last supper is a Passover meal, it institutes the celebration of a new exodus. The blood of the lamb does not atone for the sins of Israel; it is a “sign” marking out the houses of the Israelites, so that the Lord will pass over them and not allow the destroyer to enter (Ex. 12:13, 23). However, the interpretation that Jesus gives to the cup alludes not to the Passover but to the confirmation of the covenant with Moses (Ex. 24:8). He is saying no more than that the new covenant between YHWH and his people will be confirmed not by the blood of a bull but by his own death.

Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34), is difficult to understand on the assumption that he is being thought of as God. Psalm 22, which opens with these words of despair, is the prayer of a man who is opposed and threatened by his enemies, who cries to God for deliverance, who promises to praise God in the congregation, and who affirms in the end that the nations will turn to the Lord, for “kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations”. Jesus appears to have consciously located his death in the story of the coming reign of God over the nations.

The faithfulness of Jesus

It is the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” that makes his death an act of atonement which God can put forward to the world as a demonstration of his own righteousness (Rom. 3:21-26). The translation “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” for pisteōs Iēsou Christou is contentious, admittedly, but the idea is found elsewhere, not least in Romans 5:12-21, where what qualifies Jesus’ death is the exceptional act of obedience. The argument does not require an absolutely sinless life, one that is humanly impossible, only the “one act of righteousness” (henos dikaiōmatos) which resulted in his death. Just as the one act of disobedience of the first man Adam led to condemnation for all men, so the one act of obedience of “that one man Jesus Christ” resulted in “justification and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). What made this work—what made the death effective for the many—was not that Jesus was God but that “grace abounded” (5:17, 20-21). Paul’s argument is clear: Jesus’ death resulted in life because God poured out grace abundantly in response to his obedience.

I suggested in The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom that when Paul says that God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh”, he has in mind the fact that Jesus was crucified as a sinner, as a false claimant to the throne of Israel, alongside two other renegades. He appeared to the world to be fundamentally in the wrong. The same point could be made with respect to 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“he made him to be sin who knew no sin”) and Galatians 3:13: Christ redeemed part of Israel from the curse of the Law by “becoming a curse for us”. The crucifixion had marked Jesus in the eyes of many as an apostate, a lawless person, accursed, outlawed from the community of Israel. Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 speaks of the persecuted righteous who “in the sight of human beings… were punished”—that is, as wrong-doers—but who will “judge nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will be king over them for ever”. The appearance of sinfulness again is part of an apocalyptic narrative culminating in the rule of YHWH over the nations.

The so-called “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11 emphasizes the self-abasement and obedience which led to a degrading death on a cross, for which reason God exalted him and gave him the name of “Lord”, which was otherwise reserved for God alone.

Hebrews appears to lay even greater stress on the humanity of Jesus in his suffering. He prayed intensely to God and “was heard because of his reverence”. He was a son in the sense determined by Psalm 2—that is, the king who would rule the nations (Heb. 5:5). Nevertheless, he “learned obedience through what he suffered”, and having been “perfected” through this experience, he “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him”. Jesus’ offering of himself to God was “through the Spirit”, and the point is also made that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:14, 22). The argument requires no further conditions than that Jesus was filled with the Spirit and that he died. Finally, we are told that having offered a single and decisive sacrifice for sins, Christ sat down at the right hand of God until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet (10:12-13). Jesus’ death is tightly framed by the same apocalyptic narrative: the kingdom comes about through the faithful suffering of God’s Son.

1 Peter 1:19 speaks of Jesus in his death as “like a lamb without blemish or spot”, but it is also expected of believers that they “be found by him without spot or blemish” as they wait for the impending day of God (2 Pet. 3:14; cf. Eph. 5:27). The language does not appear to mark Jesus out as unique or super-human in his death.

The apocalyptic narrative, finally, determines the significance of the imagery of the slaughtered lamb in Revelation 5. The lamb, which is also the “Lion of the tribe of Judah”, has overcome death and, therefore, has gained the right to open the scroll and its seven seals of judgment. By his death he has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and nation”, making them a kingdom of priests which will “reign on earth” (5:9-10). In Test. Jos. 19:8 a lamb which is associated with a lion is attacked by other beasts but destroys them and treads them underfoot.

The narrative of redemption

The argument appears to be, therefore, that Jesus’ death was effective for the salvation of God’s people because, as the one empowered by the Spirit of God to lead a movement of eschatological renewal, Jesus pursued a path of faithful obedience to the point of death, trusting his Father to the uttermost that death would not be the end. Nothing in the argument, as far as I can see, suggests that only a God-man could do this. The outcome of this faithfulness was twofold. On the one hand, Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God to rule over the nations until the last enemy is destroyed; on the other, God gives abundant new life to those who believe in this story—who believe that Israel’s God was justifying himself in the eyes of the world through these events.

It seems to me, therefore, that there is much to be said for David Brondos’ argument—developed mainly with Paul’s teaching in mind—in Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle’s Story of Redemption. He suggests that Jesus’ death is not redemptive in itself; rather, “it is salvific and redemptive only in that it forms part of a story” (italics removed):

This involves the claim that Paul understood Jesus’ death primarily as the consequence of his dedication and faithfulness to his mission of serving as God’s instrument to bring about the awaited redemption of Israel, which would also include Gentiles throughout the world. In this case, for Paul, Jesus’ death is salvific not because it satisfies some necessary condition for human salvation in the way that most doctrines of the atonement have traditionally maintained nor because it effects some change in the situation of human beings or the world in general; rather, it is salvific because God responded to Jesus’ faithfulness unto death in seeking the redemption of others by raising him so that all the divine promises of salvation might now be fulfilled through him. (Kindle loc. 55)

Comments

Andrew, you said, “The argument does not require an absolutely sinless life, one that is humanly impossible, only the “one act of righteousness.”

You quote Hebrews several times in this post. I don’t think you mentioned Hebrews 4:15 though: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” ESV

He was tempted in every respect as we are yet he didn’t sin. That doesn’t at all sound to me like only His obedience to death was all that counted or that it wasn’t necessary that he be absolutely sinless. That is what He did and who He was. Is that humanly possible? My only answer to that is a resounding, no.

But on what basis do you say tht it was not humanly possible? Logically it may seem to be the case, but it is not something that is stated in any way in the New Testament. On the contrary, the rationale given—not least in Hebrews—is that he was faithful, obedient. Moreover, his followers are called to exactly the same faithfulness and obedience. So the writer urges his readers to

run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the [leader] and perfecter of [faithfulness], who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1–2)

There again is the apocalyptic narrative. Hebrews 4:15 has to be read in context. The testing which Jesus faced was precisely the sort of testing that might lead the readers not to hold fast their confession. The letter is all about perseverance—in the face of persecution or discouragement. The writer’s point is that Jesus experienced just the same persecution and discouragement and, as high priest now in the heavenly sanctuary, is able to sympathize with their natural fear and is able to sustain them.

I’m not suggesting that Jesus was not absolutely sinless—that is another matter. But the point being made in Hebrews is much more restricted: it is that Jesus remained faithful in the face of persecution and discouragement, learned obedience, was made perfect, and so “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (5:8-10). Notice that—the Jewish-Christians addressed will be saved by concretely and faithfully following him along the narrow path of suffering that leads to life. All the way through the New Testament “salvation” is the historical survival of a community.

Regarding the possibility if human sinlessness, here are three exemplary personages from the New Testament annals who might qualify:

In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. (Luke 1:5-6)

although I myself might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. (Philippians 3:4-6)

It would be worthwhile investigating the relationship between sin and blame, especially in the context of the Jewish Law. It seems to be something like this: if you sin, then you are held responsible by God, at fault for the bad deed, under judgment and deserving of punishment. In short, if you sin, then you are blameworthy. If, conversely, you do not sin, you are not at fault, under censure: you are deemed blameless by God. I’m not sure the reader is supposed to infer that Zacharias, Elizabeth, and Paul were sinless and blameless for their whole lives. After all, the Law also specifies the means of restoring the one who has sinned to blamelessness via sacrifice, restitution, and so on.

I’m glad to see a reference to Brondos. I think you’ll find his insights impressive.

Regarding Psalm 22, I think the use of it on the cross was a bit different than is usually conceived. That Psalm is a song. In any culture where the openning line of a popular song is exclaimed in public it is inevitable that some of them are going to fill in the blanks. Imagine calling out, “We are the Champions …” or “Don’t stop, believing . . .”, you are likely to get back the rest of the song. In the case of Psalm 22 the rest of the song was a narrative of what the audience of the crucifixion was observing at that very moment. The point wasn’t to make a comment about the hypostatic union, but that what the audience was observing was fulfilling the Psalm. So, in verse one we have the rhetorical question of why God has forsaken Christ, but in verses 19 and 20 we have the request that God not be too far away when it’s time to fight back. If the people thinking through the lyrics looked around, they would have seen people gambling for clothing, bones not being broken, etc. It might also occur to them that the lower section of the Pslam regarding the kingdom was now in effect.

Doug

Agreed, except that I would put the realization of the kingdom of God firmly in the future.

once we have reached the consolidated theological position that Jesus is fully God and fully man, it may seem necessary to read that ontology back into everything that is said about him in the New Testament

This is actually your own position, Andrew, and you already concede it is the NT position - albeit, you might argue, a peripheral position. It is also demonstrably the position of the authors of the gospels - synoptics and John. They were editing the material to highlight what was clear to them in retrospect, but not obvious at the time.

You can’t really have a narrative which rests on a non-divine Jesus, whilst acknowledging that the NT itself, and your own personal position, holds Jesus to be God. Somewhere you are going to have to address this contradiction.

They were editing the material to highlight what was clear to them in retrospect, but not obvious at the time.

In retrospect, yes, but not from outside the Jewish-apocalyptic frame, not from the second or third or fourth centuries. What seems to me so remarkable about the synoptic Gospels is that they appear to be so little influenced by the theological and ecclesiological concerns of a later period—even of the period of the Pauline churches, which is pre-AD 70. It is surely significant that no one in the recent discussions has defended the orthodox position by quoting from Luke-Acts, a relatively late document which covers the entire historical period directly narrated in the New Testament.

What seems to me so remarkable about the synoptic Gospels is that they appear to be so little influenced by the theological and ecclesiological concerns of a later period

It depends what you mean by ‘the concerns of a later period’. The issue of Jesus’s deity, which can be extensively illustrated in the gospels, was a concern of a very early period indeed.

You still haven’t addressed my basic question, which is that if you allow, as you do, the deity of Jesus, what effect does that have on the narrative? I argue that it breaks open the strait jacket of the “limited Jewish apocalyptic frame”, which you propose forms its boundary.

I argue that it breaks open the strait jacket of the “limited Jewish apocalyptic frame”, which you propose forms its boundary.

That’s the hermeneutical choice we make. I want to respect the literary-historical integrity of the texts. You are happy to introduce exotic ideas into texts and re-read them on that basis. I just think that’s a bad way to read the New Testament.

“once we have reached the consolidated theological position that Jesus is fully God and fully man, it may seem necessary to read that ontology back into everything that is said about him in the New Testament”

Andrew, are you including yourself in that “we” that have reached that theological position? Peter says it is your position even if you believe it only peripherally. But you have still never said so that I am aware of. Even after being asked repeatedly.

So, am I to take this statement of yours as the answer to that question? Are you saying you are part of the “we”?

Hi again Andrew,

In reading back over some of the voluminous discussion from the last couple of weeks, I see that you did say that a narrative theology probably has to conclude that Jesus is God. And you said you are committed to the church that has this belief as a central assumption.

But you have left me so confused on this that my head is spinning! Because while you made that assertion, you are still insisting that the sections of the Bible that we have gleaned that from don’t mean that at all. Or we certainly can’t be sure that they do. In fact the last statement you made on the subject was, (if I remember correctly) that the New Testament may “hint” that Jesus is God.

So if it is the truth that you do believe that He is God, what in the world do you base that on? There seems to be quite a disconnect or contradiction here to me.

(And for that matter, when asked about who you believe Jesus to be yourself, I think the only real answer you gave me was that He was your Savior and Lord. And we know that you don’t believe that Lord denotes that Jesus was deity. So your only direct answer to me when I asked you did not include a statement that you believe He is God.)

I give up Andrew. Where this all takes you I don’t know, only time will tell I guess. It seems like your answers to these questions at the moment are contradictory at best. But I firmly believe that a non divine Savior just doesn’t fill the bill. And yes that is a theological conclusion, but also one I have come to because I believe the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, teach that He is indeed God. I can see it no other way.

Cherylu, I’m sorry to be causing so much confusion! Others have been asking the same question, so I may try again to write something to clear things up.

But I will repeat a point which I have made many times. I think there is a serious problem with theologically-driven approaches to New Testament interpretation which, in their eagerness to defend dogmatic conclusions, whether those conclusions are justified in the bigger picture or not, consistently miss what the New Testament actually is trying to say. You might want to have a look at an article I did for a theological forum recently on “Reading the Old Testament as a Christian”.

In the present case, what the New Testament appears to want to say about Jesus’ death is that its effectiveness for salvation rests in his faithful obedience in the context of an apocalyptically conceived narrative about first century Israel. That is what is actually said. It’s there in the texts. You keep asserting the fact, but you have offered no good biblical evidence for your argument that Jesus’ death had atoning force only because he is God.

I think that those who are so anxious to press the orthodox position are sometimes guilty of showing a serious lack of respect towards scripture.

Andrew,

“Cherylu, I’m sorry to be causing so much confusion! Others have been asking the same question, so I may try again to write something to clear things up.” Please do!

Back to the subjece of Jesus death/sacrifice. Did you ever notice that in the OT the high priest had to offer a sacrifice for his own sins before he could offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement? Leviticus 16. This is of course, the Old Testament sacrifice/ritual that most specifically prefigured Jesus death on the cross. The high priest was a sinful man and thus atonement had to be made for himself before he could do anything to make atonement for the sins of the people.

If Jesus was a normal human being like the rest of us, would he have not had to atone for his own sins first as the high priest did before he could make atonement for anyone else? And yet that was not the case. He made atonement only once and that sacrifice was once and for all. How could that be if he was a man that had sinned in any way in thought, attitude, action, word or whatever, even once in his life? That is the Biblical reason I am giving and have been giving. Maybe I haven’t been explicit enough about it in the past.

Or are you believing that though Jesus was just a man like all of the rest of us that he somehow managed to maintain a 100% sinfree life from His first breath until His last on the cross?

This will have to be a very quick response. According to Hebrews 7:23-28 Jesus is able to save the Jewish-Christians to whom the letter is addressed because his priesthood is permanent, carried out in heaven, at the right hand of God. As such a high priest he is “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens”. The writer is not speaking of Jesus’ earthly existence here but of his heavenly existence. He has been entirely removed from the sphere of sinful priestly activity.

As high priest he “has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself”. So the author answers your question. Why does Jesus not have to offer up sacrifices on a daily basis for his own sins? Because he did so once for all when he offered up his life to fulfil the purpose of God. By that act of faithful obedience he was appointed “Son”, he was made perfect forever, and so now exercises a permanent priesthood in heaven, and “always lives to make intercession” for these troubled Jewish-Christians.

Remarkably the argument appears to imply that Jesus was not absolutely sinless—I’m not sure about that. But it certainly does not attribute the efficacy of his death as an act of atonement to the fact that he was in any way super-human. His death had saving effect—interpreted here through the metaphor of becoming a permanent high priest—because he learned obedience through what he suffered (5:8).

First deal with the text, then ask what the theological implications are.

Andrew,

I simply don’t have the time or the energy to carry on this conversation any further. At least not at this time.

It doesn’t matter what anyone says, you have a contradicting answer. You are not convincing us and we are not convincing you.

I have other things I need to be busy about…..

I will be interested to see if you come up with that post that is supposed to clear up some of the confusion about your own beliefs however.

Speaking from personal experience, the shift from seeing everything through an inherited theological framework to listening and wrestling with the biblical texts in their raw narrative-historical state is a conversion of sorts. Before this “conversion” it is really is hard to see things any other way than what has been handed down to us and we are used to. Now, having “converted” (thanks to reading the works of people like Tom Wright and Andrew Perriman) I can’t not see the narrative- historical contingency of the biblical texts and the nature and limit of their theological claims.

This “conversion” takes time, but the more I looked at the biblical texts with my new narrative-historical lenses the easier it became to understand them in that context and the harder it was to read into them anachronistic theological claims from centuries later.

Nowadays, there isn’t much Andrew says on this blog about a narrative-historical interpretation of the biblical text that can shock me - though sometimes he comes close! ;-)

Hello Andrew,

As Rob states above, I too am seeing things in a different light, having come from reading my scripture through the eyes of later theology. I think I’ve been forced to do this as I am involved with a number of groups that are outside looking in at the Christianity formed by the theologizing we are most familiar with. If you are not challenging me, they are.

You again quote from one of David Brondos’ books concerning Paul and the cross. I am wondering if you have looked at his earlier work called “Fortress Introduction to Salvation and the Cross”? It is in this book, starting with Isaiah, moving through Luke’s writings, on to Paul, and then on to the writings of Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, finally arriving to modern day theologians. It is an excellent compilation of examples of how historical context and the questions it brought to these representatives of Christian thought moved away from the scriptural emphases - the narrative-historical if you will. The questions still had to be addressed; I just wonder if they were addressed by acquiescing to that context instead of staying with the revelation.

His most recent book “Reclaiming the Gospel” asks questions brought to the church’s scholars who have shaped Christian theological thought. The questions bring out (in my observation) the holes that are created in moving away from the revelation.

These books helped me move from what I thought was obvious in orthodoxy, to at least a little more humilty (I hope!) in listening to others who depart, and challenge with some very capable substance, those things you are bringing out.

My concern revolves around how to tell this saving story faithfully to those who have a hard time seeing it through what is put in front of them. I am sure this is a concern to all involved in discussions like this. But the challenges are out there, and you (and Brondos) are helping me present something that catches their attention.

Mark

Well written and very interesting. Thanks.

It is a difficult thing to do, but I’ve found the practice of trying to read Scripture objectively, and without imposing any pre-existing beliefs, dogma and doctrines on it, to be illuminating and often disconcerting. Trying to make sense of atonement, from the text only, is definitely challenging. In my humble opinion.

Regarding Psalm 22 and… ‘Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34), is difficult to understand on the assumption that he is being thought of as God. Psalm 22, which opens with these words of despair, is the prayer of a man who is opposed and threatened by his enemies, who cries to God for deliverance, who promises to praise God in the congregation, and who affirms in the end that the nations will turn to the Lord, for “kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations”. Jesus appears to have consciously located his death in the story of the coming reign of God over the nations.’

We were in Belize on a mission trip in the early ’90s. We went to the services of the local Methodist preacher whose school we were helping build. Prior to each hymn being sung, he read out the entire first verse. We then relized that the congregation was illiterate and had to be prompted for exactly which hymn was to be sung. They then sang the hymns unaided by the hymnals in their hands, while we read from the hymnals and sang.

Kind of made us wonder who was illiterate, they or us!

Thanks. That illustrates the point rather nicely.