Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Crucifixion of Christ


There are many common misconceptions about the crucifixion of Jesus among secular communities. Most modern Christians endeavor to use critical methods in studying the New Testament, but the purpose is not to attempt to write a life of Jesus in the contemporary sense of a psychological study; the objective is to reconstruct the barest outline of his career and to give some account of his teachings and message. Most reasonable thinking people would agree that to blame all Jews for the crucifixion of Christ makes about as much sense as holding all Italians responsible because Pontius Pilate was Roman, that kind of discourse is nothing more than the lowest form of bigotry.

Numerous Christologies give emphasis to the divine initiative in the execution of Christ understanding it as a previous custom, as a sacrifice, like that of the Day of Atonement or that of the Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). Succeeding references to "blood" in connection with the death of Christ repeat both these traditions. Blood denotes not a material substance but the event of Christ's death in its saving significance.

Approaches to Biblical authority have been many and wide-ranging. The Bible speaks of inspiration or divine breath as the source of vitality and power. Genesis 2:7 asserts that the Lord God "breathed into his nostrils, the breath of life, and man became a living being." Ezekiel 37:10 says the lifeless bones that "the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet." So Paul can say, "Our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in the Holy Spirit." (1 Thessalonians 1: 5. The implication is that, just as divine inspiration had made the prophetic message a living one, so the words of scripture are signposts to something that goes beyond words.

Liberal denigration of the Bible in the 19th century seemed to many to chip away at the authority that had been attached to scripture. Many have linked the notion of verbal inspiration with inerrancy and infallibility, but its significance, that while Martin Luther can speak of the Bible as "the Holy Spirit's very own book" with "God.... In every syllable," he can also affirm that mistakes and inconsistencies do not affect the heart of the gospel. "The Holy Spirit," he affirms, "has an eye only to the substance and is not bound by words." Many Christians agree that inspiration is no guarantee against human fallibility, nor does it affirm uniformity in quality and authority. There are levels in scripture: the kernel is encased in a shell; the baby lies in a manger.

To hear the Bible merely as a compendium of ancient literature and to limit oneself to critical, historical study of its contents would be a denial of the believer's experience that in the Bible they have found the word of God addressing them with "transforming and liberating power" as Thomas Merton put it. If Christianity is a religion of the spirit rather than the letter (2 Corinthians 3:6), we should expect a range of diversity in interpretation. There must also be a subjective element in interpretation just as there was in the writing. The more one brings of human experience, spiritual sensitivity, and common sense to the Bible the more one will get from it. Hence, to recognize the authority of the Bible is to respond to the imperatives made by the God of the Bible. For in due course what is looked for is an encounter not with words but with a person.

To address the main topic of this node one first has to take a look back at what crucifixion was. The Oxford Companion To The Bible defines it as:

    The act of nailing or binding a person to a cross or tree, whether for executing or for exposing the corpse.
Considered a brutal and most appalling form of capital punishment many ancient historians by the likes of Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus wrote about the assorted types used by the Assyrians, Scythians, Phoenicians and Persians (Ezra 6:11). The institution of crucifixion was incorporated by Alexander the Great and his descendants, and in particular by the Romans, who reserved if for slaves in cases of robbery and rebellion. There was only one reason in Roman law whereby a citizen of Rome could be crucified and that was for the crime of treason. Josephus noted mass crucifixions in Judea under a number of Roman prefects, most particularly Titus during the siege of Jerusalem; the same also happened in the Jewish quarter of Alexandria, according to Philo. Before the execution the victim was scourged (Mark 5: 15), required to bear the transverse beam (patibulum) to the place of execution (John 19: 17), was then nailed to it through the hands and feet to the cross (Luke 24:39); John 20:25), from which a wooden peg protruded to support the body; some of these literary details are established by archeological findings of the bones of crucifixion victims.

Jewish law doesn't elaborate as to whether or not crucifixion was a practice of capital punishment. There may be a suggestion that crucifixions occured within the Jewish community in Deuteronomy 21: 22-23, which calls for persons to be put to death saying they 'must be hung on a tree and buried on the same day.' The Temple Scroll of Qumran also spells out penalties that amount to crucifixion for the crime of high treason, for example, if an Israelite curses his people or delivers it to a foreign nation. In rabbinic writings " crucifixion is the death penalty for "robbers" (bandits {t. Sanh. 9:7 Qoh Rab. 7:26 (190b}) and for martyrs (Gen. Rab. 65 {141a}; Mek. 68b). Isaac, carrying the wood for his sacrifice, was compared to a man bearing the cross on his shoulders (Gen Rab. 56 {118b}). Similarly, a disciple of Jesus must take up his cross and follow him (Mark 8:34 par.; Matt. 10:38 )."

Jesus arrived from Galilee to continue his ministry in Jerusalem preaching and teaching. His adversaries became engaged in conflicts with him, but these conflicts, Mark indicates, were of a different manner from previous ones in Galilee. By now Jesus is a marked man and his enemies' anger him on explicit issues, looking to ensnare him into self-incrimination. John also depicts Jesus as infuriated with theological clashes among religious authorities in the city.

Jesus' challenge reaches its pinnacle with his entry to Jerusalem and the "cleansing" of the Temple. Among the Synoptic writers; John shifts the "cleansing" for theological reasons to the beginning of the ministry and it's not precisely clear what the issues were that led the Sanhedrin's to plot Jesus' execution. (For the plot read Mark 14:1-2; 10-11; John 11 :45-54). The Synoptic credits the conspiracy against Jesus to the Sanhedrin's response to the temple cleansing (Mark 11: 18) While John makes a less persuasive case for conspiracy based upon Jesus' raising of Lazarus even though it's John's report about the Sanhedrin meeting (John 11:47-53) that appears to bear additional support on reliable tradition: the Sanhedrin decided to get rid of Jesus out of fear that disturbance of the peace would give way to Roman interference destroying the fragile balance between Jewish and Roman power.

Following the more plausible account of John, on the eve of Passover, Jesus celebrated a farewell meal with his disciples During the meal he interpreted his impending death as the climax of his life of self-giving service. (Luke 22:24 –27; cf. John 12:1-11; Mark 10:42 –45a may have initially belonged in this framework). The literal words that Jesus spoke over the bread and cup are impossible to recover due to an assortment of accounts of the institution that have been colored by liturgical developments in the post-Easter community. However, all agree that Jesus coupled the bread with his body or his person and the wine with his blood as the significance for the giving of his life in death. In addition it is the unilaterally agreed among all Christians that his death was an inauguration of a new covenant, assuring his disciples that beyond his death lay the coming of the kingdom of God. (Mark 14:25; Luke 22: 15-18).

The disciples and Jesus went out to the garden of Gethsemane after their supper (Mark 14:32: John 18:1) where the Temple police arrested him, and as well if John is correct, by Roman soldiers proof that indicates the priestly party and the Roman prefect were in close collusion over the affair. A preliminary investigation was held before the Jewish authorities (Mark 14:53-64; John 18: 12-14, 19-24 is thought to be more accurate) Less of a formal trial, it was similar to a grand jury proceeding. They found with their inquiries to their satisfaction that there was enough support to justify an indictment of high treason before Pilate's court (Mark 15:1-15).

By bringing Jesus before Pilate (Mark 15: 1) the members of the Sanhedrin could anticipate a sentence of "death by crucifixion," under the assertion that claiming to be the Messiah was an act of rebellion against Rome. It's for this reason that Jesus was compared to the revolutionary Barabbas (Mark 15: 7-27) After the people asked for Barabbas release Pilate had no other option that to crucify Jesus, who was scourged, mocked by the legionaries and crucified together with two "robbers. "

The mockery in which Jesus' guilt is repeated may have been meant to make him understand his error and lead him to a confession of sins. Even so his first words from the cross were, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."(Luke 23:34); his was a willing sacrifice for others. While he was put on the cross by Roman soldiers the burial in the evening of that day was done by a Jew in accordance to Deuteronomy 21:23. (Mark 12: 42-46 ; John 19: 31) Deuteronomy 21: 22-23 is also related to the crucifixion by Paul in Galatians 3: 13, since a person hanging on a tree is cursed by God, the cross of Jesus became a stumbling block for Jews.

According to Matthew 20: 19 and 26 Jesus said that once delivered to the gentiles he would suffer crucifixion. The predictions of suffering by Jesus were not necessarily prophecies after the fact. The inscription on the cross told all who were witness to his death that Jesus was crucified as "King of the Jews" (Mark 15: 26) In his trial before the high priest (Mark 14: 62) and before Pilate (Mark 15: 2), Jesus had admitted to being the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God. It was the members of the Sanhedrin who proclaimed Jesus deserved the death penalty because he had uttered blasphemy (Mark 14: 61-64); they must have taken to mean Deuteronomy 21: 22-23 in a like manner of the Temple Scroll (cf. John 19: 7,15) A false messiah could deliver the people of Israel and the Temple to the gentiles (John 11: 48-50). The Babylonian Talmud affirms this judgment based on Deuteronomy 13: 1-11 that Jesus was executed because he had led Israel astray.

Jesus was condemned to death as a messianic pretender, taken out to Golgotha and crucified alongside two criminals guilty of sedition. (Mark 15: 20-32: John 19: 16-19). Jesus died later that day and was buried according to gospel tradition, by sympathizers (Mark 15: 42-47: John 19: 38-42). This marked the end of his earthly career.

Noung's write up cites the scripture as one that has been used frequently to support a historical foundation for Anti- Semitism:

    "All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!"
    (Matthew 27: 25.
This cry for Jesus' blood has caused untold pain and Christians have used it to justify oppression of Jews. By the time Jesus was nailed to the cross, practically everyone had denied, rejected and vilified him. The spirit and meaning in Matthew's words displays how all had deserted Jesus. The guilt is common and great; responsibility is universal.

Sources:

The Bible. Revised Standard Version.

Metzger, Bruce M., and Coogan, Michael D. The Oxford Companion To The Bible. Oxford University Press, New York, 1993.p. 66-67. p 141- 142. p 359-360.

Picture Source:
Christ Crucified is a 1632 painting of the Crucifixion of Jesus by Diego Velázquez, currently in the Museo del Prado.

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