In the likeness of sinful flesh: some reflections for Holy Week

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We are between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. A few days ago Jesus rode into Jerusalem to excited cries of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mk. 11:9). The acclamation comes from Psalm 118:25-26: “Save us (hoshiʿ naʾ), we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” In the psalm the words come directly on the tail of the saying about the stone rejected by the builders, which Jesus will shortly direct at the chief priests, scribes, and elders of the people at the end of his story about a mismanaged vineyard (Mk. 12:10; cf. Ps. 118:22). The crowds may be fickle, but the leadership of Israel is convinced that Jesus is trouble, a threat to the security of the nation.

Perhaps twenty years later, a Galilean, making his way to Jerusalem for the feast of tabernacles, is killed by Samaritans. This provokes great anger among the Jews, and a mob sets off from Jerusalem to avenge the man’s death, led by a belligerent fellow called Eleazar. The authorities in Jerusalem—perhaps even some of the same chief priests, scribes, and elders—run out after them in a panic, fearing Roman reprisals, and succeed in persuading many to turn back. But a hard core of militants goes on the rampage, engaging in robbery, and “rapines and insurrections of the bolder sort” (Jos. War 2.238).

Eventually Rome gets a grip on the situation. The procurator Felix, known to us from the book of Acts, brings Eleazar’s insurgency to an end. Eleazar, the “arch-robber” (archilēstēn), is dispatched to Rome, where no doubt he came to a sticky end. But a great number of the “robbers” (lēstōn) who followed him were crucified (Jos. War 2.253). Thousands of Jews would meet the same fate over the next twenty years.

The crucifixion of Jesus was an early straw in the violent winds—the collective madness—that would bring rebellion, war, and destruction on Judea and Jerusalem.

At the instigation of the chief priests, the crowd calls for Jesus to be executed in place of a man called Barabbas, one of a number of rebels who had “committed murder in the insurrection” (Mk. 15:7). Jesus suffered the punishment, therefore, that would otherwise have been inflicted on a man who was implicated in Israel’s violent resistance to Rome. That is what penal substitutionary atonement means in the context of the Synoptic Gospels. Whatever we make of the notion theologically, it is profoundly historical.

The soldiers hail him as “King of the Jews,” strike him and spit on him, and kneel in homage to him—the pitiful fake king of a pitiful subject nation.

It is also more or less what Paul was getting at when he said that even while the Jews were enemies with God, they were reconciled to him and saved from the coming wrath against Israel “by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:9-10). He was “delivered up for our trespasses,” Paul says, just as Isaiah’s servant was pierced for the transgressions of Israel, crushed for the iniquities of Israel (Is. 53:5).

The whole battalion of Roman soldiers is summoned to attend the mock coronation. Jesus is clothed in the purple cloak of a Hellenistic vassal king and crowned with thorns (cf. 1 Macc. 10:18; 11:58). The soldiers hail him as “King of the Jews,” strike him and spit on him, and kneel in homage to him—the pitiful fake king of a pitiful subject nation.

He is crucified between two “robbers” (lēstas), who both revile him, according to Mark. He is numbered with the transgressors (cf. Is. 53:12). This is presumably the popular verdict. He deserves to be punished.

He is derided as a false Messiah, a deluded pretender to the throne of Israel, not the first, not the last. The chief priests and scribes play the part of the corrupt, self-serving powerful elites who, according to Wisdom of Solomon, persecute the righteous Jew and seek to dispose of him:

He calls the last end of the righteous happy and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is a son of God, he will help him and will rescue him from the hand of those who oppose him. (Wis. 2:16–18)

The centurion who stood facing Jesus would have seen many Jews die in this way. Most would have been executed deservedly, but every now and then he would have seen a righteous man die the death of the wicked. He understood enough of the Jewish mindset—and of the cynicism of those in power—to know that this guiltless man was “a son of God.”

The whole story is under-voiced with a pulsating recitation of Psalm 22. Israel’s king asks why his God has forsaken him. The fathers always trusted in YHWH and he delivered them. But the king is “a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.” He is mocked for his trust in the Lord in the face of extremity. His strength is gone. He is surrounded by evildoers, who have pierced his hands and feet. They divide his garments among themselves, and cast lots for his clothing.

So the king prays that he will be delivered from a violent death. He will praise the name of YHWH in the temple because he has “not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.” It is just this sort of act of salvation that will cause the nations to turn to YHWH and worship him. “For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.” Paul’s gospel in a nutshell.

Finally, I think that it is this whole story of repudiation and disgrace in the eyes of the Jews that lies behind Paul’s statement that God sent his own Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3). This is not an attempt to define an incarnational ontology. It is Paul—the once zealous Pharisee, deeply affronted by the absurd claims made by the followers of Jesus—encapsulating the official Jewish view of Jesus. In the eyes of mainstream, anxious, Torah-observant Israel Jesus had always walked a dangerous and Law-less path and in the end was justly crucified as a sinner.

Again, Jesus is one of those described in Wisdom of Solomon, who in the sight of most people was punished for wrongdoing, who died, so to speak, “in the likeness of sinful flesh”; but “their hope is full of immortality, and having been disciplined a little, they will be greatly benefited, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself…. (Wis. 3:4–5; cf. Heb. 5:7-8).

Samuel Conner | Thu, 04/08/2021 - 15:11 | Permalink

Thank you, Andrew. This is helpful, especially the identification of “penal substitution” with a discernible historical referent.

re: “He is derided as a false Messiah, a deluded pretender to the throne of Israel, not the first, not the last. ”

The superficially somewhat surprising turn of the crowds against Jesus, after the public acclamation of a week prior, and the preference for a known insurrectionist, when given the choice by Pilate, suggests to me that it might be appropriate to phrase this “derided as a failed Messiah”. Why did the crowds prefer the violent man to the peaceful man? It seems to me that they wanted someone to lead them in revolt.

Psalm 120 comes to mind.

I have read that among the few references to Jesus in the early Rabbinic literature, there is the condemnation of him as “a deceiver of Israel.” Perhaps the deception in view in these writings is less theological than political — he presented himself to Israel as king but then at the last moment failed to liberate the nation from its visible enemies.

 I think one can enlarge the historical referent beyond Barabbas. Jesus died the death that his followers would have died had Jesus conformed to their expectations of what Israel’s king should be and do. I suspect that Paul would have been one of those to die in a notional “Jesus is king, not Ceasar” war against Rome. So Jesus’ death would have saved Paul, too, from death at the hands of the Romans. Perhaps, for Paul, “he loved me and gave himself for me” is intensely personal.

It is more speculative, but seems plausible to me to see a “theory of atonement” in this — by disappointing his followers, Jesus discouraged them and delayed the war for a generation, saving many in Israel. He intercepted the Roman sword and so ransomed the people for a time. This could account for how the visible defeat that is “the Cross” is in fact a victory over the “powers” that stand behind the pagan world and that stand in opposition to Israel and her god YHWH. Israel’s enemies would have been better served had Jesus not been put to death; the war and Israel’s defeat in it might have come sooner.


An odd implication of this is that one could argue that there was actually a community of interest among Jesus, his adversaries among Israel’s leaders (at least among the priestly class, who wanted to preserve the uneasy but not overtly violent status quo) and Pilate. They all wanted to avoid the outbreak of open hostilities. I suspect that of them, Jesus saw the matter the most clearly, rightly interpreting the signs of the times, and that he concluded that it was necessary for Israel’s king to die at the hands of Israel’s enemies in order, under the then circumstances, to avoid the outbreak of war.

Prince of peace indeed!

Fascinating reflections/speculation as usual, Samuel.

Perhaps, for Paul, “he loved me and gave himself for me” is intensely personal.

Yes, I think that might be right. It’s probably what Paul is getting at when he says that “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10).

But I still don’t really see how Jesus’ death deferred the catastrophe of AD 70 or improved the situation for the Jews in any way. I don’t see anything that could be taken to mean that his death bought Israel some time.

Mark 13:20 comes to mind: “And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days.” But here the need is to shorten the period of tribulation, not to lengthen it.

Thank you, Andrew.

I’m definitely reading between the lines, and definitely speculating. It does look plausible to me, but perhaps that’s just me.

Some further thoughts:

Paul, in Romans 5, sees a special fitness to the moment at which Jesus died at the hands of the Romans — “at just the right time”. Jesus intervened, by means of his own death, at a time when some group, that I suspect included Paul, was “still weak.” Perhaps a militant independence movement that did not yet have widespread national support, but could gain that with a popular leader. Famously, the two on the Emmaus road seemed to have seen in Jesus such a leader — surely the “redemption of Israel” that they were looking for was some kind of liberation from Rome. These men were looking for a warrior king to lead them against Rome.

I also wonder if Paul’s language about Jesus making peace between Jew and Gentile might be more than a theological/ecclesiological statement about the mixed churches he was founding. Perhaps he was aware that the two had been at knife’s point (Paul himself being one of the would-be knife wielders) and their hostility was quelled, for a while, by Jesus’ death.

The Jn 11 debate about “what to do about Jesus” after the resuscitation of Lazarus suggests that circa AD 30, Israel did have something of the character of a “powder keg.” The leaders feared that a popular movement would form around Jesus and lead to Roman intervention. The author of the 4th Gospel seems to approve this assessment and the implication of the necessity of Jesus’ death for the people.

Another thought that recently occurred is that the mention of Barabbas in Mark 15:7 speaks of an uprising using the definite article. The author may have a specific incident in mind — one would dearly like to know more detail — and perhaps this incident occurred in the context of Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem. Barabbas and companions, being (I speculate) among those who believed that Jesus was the one who would redeem Israel, “jumped the gun” as Jesus approached Jerusalem or after he had arrived, hoping to deliver the city to its newly proclaimed king.

This is highly speculative, of course, but it fits nicely with an interpretation of the crowds as wanting a Davidic-style king who would rid Israel of its Gentile oppressors. Barabbas rightly assessed the temper of the people, and tried to “get the ball rolling”. Jesus also rightly assessed the temper of the people, and brought the ball to a dead stop by allowing himself to be captured without striking a blow, and then humiliating the entire nation by being crucified as its king.

 No-one saw it coming (even the apostles were not able to believe Jesus’ plain statements about what he expected [or planned] to happen at Jerusalem. It would have been a “body blow” to a militant movement that had set its hopes on Jesus, and it seems plausible to me that this disappointment could have lasted until that generation had largely departed the scene.

This next thought goes beyond speculation into pure fantasy (and might be a workable premise for a “holy fiction” set in AD30.) I don’t know enough to produce such a thing, but perhaps this thought will stimulate someone better equipped to try.

I wonder whether the idea to offer the crowds the choice between “failed — didn’t even try — Messiah” Jesus and “imprisoned insurrectionist” Barabbas originated with Jesus himself.

Something that has impressed me about the canonical narratives is that Pilate seems more determined to let Jesus go free than Jesus does himself. It’s as if Jesus reckons the necessity of his own death and is not going to cooperate with Pilate’s attempts to impartially apply Roman law. 

I imagine a conversation along these lines:

J: It’s a disagreeable reality, but you’re going to have to execute me, and it’s vital that the charge be that I am Israel’s king.

P: You are a madman. I’m not going to execute someone who is no more than a petty nuisance.

J: If you let me go, I will cause you no trouble, but you will still have a gigantic problem on your hands — my people want to throw your people out of the land, and unless they can be discouraged, they will try again soon. Someone will come along who is willing to cater to their hopes and they will follow him against you; there will be war and much bloodshed. 

P. I don’t believe that the situation is that dire.

J: You do not know this people. I propose that you test their temper. Offer them a choice — to whom would they prefer clemency to be extended? To me, the hoped-for king who so bungled his mission that he was captured by Israel’s enemies before he could draw a drop of blood, or to a man who has proved his zeal for Israel by taking the life of an enemy?

P: ….

J: I believe you have some prisoners taken in the revolt that attended my arrival in the City. Offer the people the choice: whom do they prefer, the rebels or me?  And then decide whether you dare to not send them a vivid and memorable message that Rome will not tolerate any king that arises in Israel.