To some extent, the followers of Jesus knew the basic facts: he was crucified by the authority of Pontius Pilate (with the complicity of the Jewish leadership?) outside the city of Jerusalem around the time of the Passover. Yet what was the meaning of those events? As Koester has noted, that question led the followers of Jesus back to the Scriptures, to familiar passages that seemed to describe some comparable situation. For example, according to Nils Dahl, “[E]arly Christians read Psalm 22, Psalm 69, and other psalms of lamentation, probably also Isaiah 53, as accounts of the passion of Jesus before there existed any written passion story.” 21 As Crossan explains, these believers did not read such passages “as referring exclusively and individually to Jesus but rather… to their original referents and to Jesus now as well.” 22 Thus, in addition to the examples cited by Dahl, one passage that helped Jesus’ followers make sense of what had happened was this verse from the Psalms: “The rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed” (2: 2). Another such passage— one that seemed to include what had happened to Jesus’ followers— was a verse from Zechariah: “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered” (13: 7b). And after reports of the resurrection, Jesus’ followers saw new significance in this verse from Hosea: “After two days [the LORD] will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up” (6: 2). According to Crossan, these “passion prophecies” led the first generation of Christians to develop the belief that Jesus’ suffering and subsequent vindication had all been part of God’s plan.
Chumney, David. Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts (Kindle Locations 1608-1621). Kindle Edition.
Most readers will be familiar with the standard scholarly explanation for the passion narrative in the gospels being infused with allusions to “Old Testament”. The disciples were so stunned by the unexpected turn of events, it is said, that they turned to the scriptures to find some means of understanding the death of Jesus and their subsequent “Easter experience”. The passage by Chumney above sums up the idea.
The question that occurred to me this time on reflecting on this explanation for the scriptural echoes throughout the passion narrative was,
“But didn’t the scriptures provide a ready set of answers for exactly the sort of demise Jesus had met? Why were those traditional explanations apparently inadequate?”
We know the Bible and extra canonical Second Temple writings were riddled with laments and praise for the righteous one who suffers unjustly. Unjust suffering, persecution, martyrdom — such was the fate of the righteous man ever since Abel and on right through Job, the Psalms and to the Maccabees. Jewish scribes wrote plenty to remind readers of this “fact of life” and to console them, assuring them that God found their blood “precious in his sight”.
So why the need to take from Psalm 22 the line that spoke of dividing garments and casting lots for them? How did that passage add to the meaning of what had happened?
Did that really happen? Chumney’s argument is correct: he turns back to the nineteenth century and David Strauss’s point in The Life of Jesus:
“[W]hen we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical.”
But the Psalm 22:18,
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
I suggest, would have added no more meaning to their experience of loss than 22:17, 20-21
All my bones are on display;
. . . . .
Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
None of those lines has any association with a death by crucifixion and they are ignored by the evangelists who composed the passion narratives. Are we to infer that the disciples of Jesus did find deeper meaning for the death of Jesus in verse 18? If so, how could that be?
The obvious answer, of course, is that the disciples were reminded of that passage in Psalms when they learned from eyewitnesses that the clothes of Jesus were indeed taken by the soldiers.
Do we have a problem here?
But if that is what inspired the disciples to find meaning in Psalm 22:18 we run into a problem. Continue reading “Did the Search for Meaning in Scriptures Really Lead to the Gospel Narratives?”