The Crucifixion of Jesus as Implicit History of the Jewish War

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by Neil Godfrey

The letters of Paul that are understood to have been written some twenty to ten years before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE speak about the crucifixion of Jesus as a simple fact. There is never any elaboration of when or where it happened (unless one treats 1 Thess 2:13-16 as genuine). The message of death and resurrection of the son of God by itself is sufficient to lead to conversion. For Mark, though (and for the sake of convenience and convention I’ll call the author of the second gospel Mark), this was not enough. A detailed story involving betrayal, abandonment, a trial, physical abuse and crucifixion with attendant miracles had to be told. I side with those critical scholars who conclude that all of those details are fabrications since the narrative was created out of various passages in the “Old Testament” and none of Jesus’ followers could have witnessed anything that happened once he was in the hands of the Jewish priests and Roman guards. But even if we concede for the sake of argument that the Passion account of Jesus did hold some “historical core” at its base, there can be no denying that the way Mark has shaped the story with its many allusions to OT scriptures is his own creative work.

Why? Why did he write that narrative and why did he write it the way he did?

Some years back I wrote a series about Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, by Clarke Owens. Clarke Owens was analysing the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a literary critic and argued that it was necessary to see the gospel as a product of its time, and that time was in the wake of the Jewish War that condemned untold numbers of Jewish victims to crucifixion around the city of Jerusalem.

In the past few months I have caught up with another work, or two of them, by a German New Testament scholar who makes much the same argument from his perspective:

  • Bedenbender, Andreas. Frohe Botschaft am Abgrund: Das Markusevangelium und der Jüdische Krieg [= Good News at/from the Abyss: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish War]. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2013.
  • Bedenbender, Andreas. Der Gescheiterte Messias [= The Failed Messiah]. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2019.

Andreas Bedenbender’s view is that the author of the earliest gospel was writing from a place of trauma and was struggling to come to terms with the fate of his people that he had just witnessed. Had not the gospel being preached about Jesus promised the soon-to-arrive Kingdom of God? Now this!? By a “failed messiah” he means a messiah who failed in the same sense that the OT prophets had failed when they preached their warnings about Assyrian and Babylonian captivity if the people of the northern and southern kingdoms did not mend their ways. This position of trauma, Bedenbender believes, explains the dark and confronting features and outright contradictions in the gospel: a messiah who now does, now does not, seem to care for his people, such as when he heals them at one moment but deserts them when they are trying to find him; who terrifies rather than comforts others by wielding his power over demons and the elements; who like a ghost is seen walking on water past his disciples instead of rushing to help them in their distress; who condemns his disciples for an unnatural blindness that they cannot help; who orders silence when a crowd has just heard and witnessed all; and whose story closes with the only witnesses to news of his resurrection fleeing dumb with fear (the earliest manuscripts of the gospel conclude at Mark 16:8).

For Bedenbender the crucifixion of Jesus is a kind of allegory of the fate of Jerusalem. The messiah is made to share in the fate of the Jewish people. From the Jewish historian Josephus we learn that those who did not die from starvation or factional violence or the slaughter of the advancing Roman soldiers or who were not enslaved were crucified:

Scourged and subjected before death to every torture, they were finally crucified in view of the wall. . . . 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. (Josephus, Jewish War, Book 6: 449-451 – G.A. Williamson translation)

We saw a similar argument in the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier. The Gospels created the figure of Jesus in part as a personification of the people of Israel.

Bedenbender goes beyond the events of the crucifixion, though. Right from the beginning of the gospel, we read of “a wilderness place” that is the frequent abode of Jesus. It is easy enough to relate the “wilderness” image to other wilderness scenes in the OT, most especially the “wilderness” through which Moses led the Israelites for 40 years. But Mark repeatedly refers to a “wilderness place” — έρημος τόπος = erēmos topos — and that brings to the minds of readers of the Greek translation (the Septuagint) of Jeremiah, Daniel and the Psalms the desolate ruin of God’s “place”, Zion and where the Temple had once stood. This is one of the ways in which the Jewish War is woven into the Gospel of Mark from its opening chapter.

Place names and names of persons are related to scenes and leaders that became well-known in the Jewish War of 66 to 70/73 CE. In the OT women are very often personifications of nations and cities and Bedenbender identifies the same figurative tradition in the names of Salome, Jairus’ daughter, Mary Magdalene (Magdala is another name for Tarichea, the scene of one of the bloodiest slaughters of Jews described by Josephus) and the others. Simon, of course, is probably the most prominent name in the gospel and here Bedenbender suggests that we see in this figure an encapsulation of the Jewish rebel movement from its beginning with Simon Maccabee through to Simon bar Giora. Simon Maccabee’s son Alexander became famous for his enforced Judaizations and mass crucifixions of his Jewish enemies, and the names of Tiberius Alexander and Rufus are readily associated with the Roman military confronting Jerusalem. (I can’t help wondering — I know this must seem outlandish to many who have more conservative views of Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, who carried Jesus’ cross — that the Gospel of Mark could have been written as late as the second century in the wake of horrendous Jewish rebellions in Cyrene and when yet another Simon, with the support of a rabbi “James”, defied Rome. The result of that rebellion in the days of Hadrian really was the ultimate end to Jerusalem and any hopes for a rebuilt temple. Would not that timeline place the author far closer to catastrophic events with a greater likelihood of writing in a pall of trauma than if he had been writing a few years after the events of 70?)

Andreas Bedenbender begins with a study of the meaning of allegory and related literary devices and examines why we should think of the entire narrative, and not merely isolated scenes, as containing a reference to the fate of Judea and what that meant for those who believed in Jesus as their messiah. He analyses the narrative to demonstrate, I think successfully, that not only the parable sayings but the miracles themselves are symbolic and take on a special depth of meaning when read in the context of the war. I believe we can go beyond the miracles and understand other narrative features (beginning with the baptism and call of the first disciples) as rich in “allegorical” references. Bedenbender has an interesting interpretation of Jesus’ debating confrontations with the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees and scribes after his entry into Jerusalem that focuses on Jesus’ attempt to disabuse them (and readers) of any notion of a messiah who was destined to wage a physical war against earthly opponents.

I look forward to posting more details about these works. In the meantime, I cannot ignore my resolution to address Witulski’s case for a Hadrian-era date for the Book of Revelation; and someone else has recently reminded me that I have yet to finish a series I was doing back in 2018 on the Parables of Enoch and the Jewish concept of a heavenly messiah.

And as Tim pointed out in his latest post, more needs to be said about “the insidious nature of agnotology” that poses a potential threat to our futures. We have to remain optimistic if we are to take the necessary actions and I think there are many reasons to be optimistic: look at what these ninthgraders can do! — this and this!


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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “The Crucifixion of Jesus as Implicit History of the Jewish War”

  1. The idea that Mark’s Gospel was written in response to the fall of Jerusalem and allegorically depicted the role of salvation, alias “Jesus,” in the history of Israel was analyzed in my book, Secret of the Savior: The Myth of the Messiah in Mark. The crucifixion scene is based on the triumphal procession in Rome to celebrate the conquest.

    1. Sid, per:
      • Martin, Sid (2013). Secret of the Savior : the myth of the Messiah in Mark. University Press of America. ISBN 0-7618-6145-9.

      What is your viewpoint on Middle-Platonic religious syncretism in the gMark narrative?

  2. If we knew exactly when the first gospel was written, it would help, wouldn’t it? Most of the sources I used when writing “Son of Yahweh” placed Mark at the time of the Jewish War, and ultimately I relied on Vermes, who, if I remember right, placed it right at 70 CE. Mark is said to have been, along with Matthew, a “Jewish” gospel; moreso than Luke, and certainly moreso than John, that outlier. I couldn’t go with a date preceding the fall of the temple, because the depiction of it, and of the war (or of a hellscape much like the war) in Mark seems so clear. So I think the major argument is whether Mark “comments” on 70 CE, or on some later catastrophe (or whether it “comments” at all on topical events). If you argue for a much later composition date, I think you have to consider the degree to which the Christian church would have developed independently of its origins as a first century Jewish sect or cult. If it were 2d C., would the tale necessarily be as “Jewish”? (Look what happens in John, usually considered the latest gospel.) What sort of influences would creep in from patristic writings since the 1st C., if any? My position was that IF the Vermes date of composition was correct, and IF Mark is a “Jewish” gospel, and IF all those images match up to the historical event BY DESIGN, then I don’t see how it is possible that the traumatic event being allegorized is not the destruction of the temple and the persecution of ca. 66-70 C.E.

    1. If we look at a document from the time of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, like the letter of Barnabas, we can see that the idea of a continuum going from “more Jewish” to “less Jewish” Christian texts is maybe not as appropriate as it could be. Barnabas is definitely “othering” the normative Jews yet still engaging intensively in their scriptures and in some ways appropriating them. I don’t therefore think it’s difficult to view Mark as an example of a similar thing: sectarian Jews operating in the time of the proto-Rabbis, whom the normative Jews have rejected. Because we do in fact see similar themes: (1) an emphasis on the words of the prophets to the effect that people should approach God with a humble heart – Mark 12:33 + Barn 2.4; (2) walking circumspectly in the face of the imminent end – Barn 4.6 + Mark 13:35, (3) dismissal of a fleshly Davidic Messiah – Barn 12.10 + Mark 12:37, (4) an emphasis on not trusting merely in your “called” status – Barn. 4.13 + Mark 9:35, (5) similar use of prooftexts and typology throughout, with some of the same scripture passages being employed.

      Therefore it’s possible even at that late date of the 130’s to still be “Jewish” in the sense that you’re operating entirely in a Jewish milieu, but it seems to be a form of sectarian Judaism that’s butting up against the post-70 AD Pharisees and almost plaintively calling for a “simpler” Judaism from what is really now a bygone era. So when the author of Mark shows what are to us Jewish characteristics like the use of full opening to the Shema prayer, these might be being employed for sectarian purposes rather than being a reflection of the author’s earlier date.

      1. Chris, is there any opportunity for the views of Dykstra in your late date scenario?

        Mark was written after a conflict had developed between Paul and the Jerusalem Christian leadership under the leadership of the “pillars” Peter, James, and John. For the [Markan] Gospel’s original readers, the picture of obtuse, glory-seeking, slothful disciples couldn’t help but bolster the authority of the one Apostle who was not so characterized [i.e. Paul]. . . . in the terms of Mark’s own day and Paul’s perspective, the real traitors are among the Christian Jewish leadership, not the non-Christian Jews. The name Judas (“Jew”) corresponds so well to Paul’s view that his opponents were traitors to the cross of Christ by being zealots for Jewish traditions [e.g. being Torah observant], that it is reasonable to suppose Mark deliberately named the betrayer Judas for that reason. [Dykstra 2012, pp. 116–117.]

        • Dykstra, Tom (2012). Mark Canonizer of Paul: A New Look at Intertextuality in Mark’s Gospel. OCABS Press. ISBN 978-1-60191-020-2.

        1. Yes but with heavy modifications, especially as it relates to the historicity of Paul and pillars. But I think that Mark’s opponents are essentially the same people that were getting tarred and feathered in 2 Cor 10-12. But I don’t hold to the idea that Mark came out of Paul’s religion, though they may have come from a common source. Rather, Mark’s gospel is butting heads with this same group independently. And this group was the one who lionized the disciples. It is also the same group that’s targeted in Gal 1-3, which I see as coming from the same author of 2 Cor 10-12.

          1. “I don’t hold to the idea that Mark came out of Paul’s religion”

            What is your viewpoint on Middle-Platonic religious syncretism in the gMark narrative vis-à-vis the Pauline?

            NB: As noted by Bart Willruth, Paul may of been a devotee of the Middle-Platonic Second-god: Chrestus.

  3. Hey, I commented on the parallel between Simon Maccabee and Simon of Cyrene a few weeks ago. Did Bedenbender also make that connection? I didn’t know of anyone else had made that connection also.

    1. Yes, he did. But not as a direct one-to-one cipher. He links the cross-carrying Simon to both historical Simons (Maccabee and bar Goria) as representatives of the zealots seeking liberty through violence. Mark rewrites those efforts to acknowledge that they had failed. The end result of their efforts was a nation crucified.

  4. OP: “[T]here can be no denying that the way Mark has shaped the story with its many allusions to OT scriptures is his own creative work.”

    That is what I call the “ring of truth”.

    • Vorster, Willem S. (1993). “The production of the Gospel of Mark – An essay on intertextuality”

    We have already noticed that Mark did not hesitate to use the Old Testament out of context … By doing this Mark created a new text from other texts, traces of which can be seen in his text.

    The relationship between the final text of the Gospel of Mark and precursor and other texts is an intertextual relationship. There is no causal relationship between this new text and the texts out of which Mark made his text. Mark quoted other texts, and his story alludes to other texts and absorbed other texts. This is how his story becomes meaningful and different from other stories with the same theme when the reader interprets Mark’s texts in the light of other texts known to him/her. (p. 394)

  5. Neil,

    As an NT critic, I deny that the details in MK are fabrications. I can see their heavy reliance on OT models. Yet many scholars (like Bart Ehrman and Dennis MacDonald) also see clear signs of Gentile literary tropes in the NT.

    This balance makes the NT unique — that it seems to be 50% Jewish and 50% Gentile, so to speak.

    The creativity of MK was revealed in detail in Germany 180 years ago by Bruno Bauer and his cohorts. Bauer showed in detail how MK was a product of its time — not the Jewish War — but
    of a population of street level Jewish readers following a successful Jewish exorcist in 33 CE, who spoke secret parables and performed a secret Eucharist while evoking so many Jewish tropes.

    This wasn’t fiction — it was 1st century history. I give you a scholar no less than Morton Smith (1978) who can show with surprising detail how the core of the Jesus story is the career of a common wandering exorcist — who knew his Bible uncommonly well.

    One could argue that MK was written after a military trauma — but why date it at 70 CE without unequivical evidence? The story is about the plausible career of a Jewish exorcist 30-33 CE, and it remains plausible that a street-level Jewish lad would condemn the Temple and all it stood for! Call it teen angst.

    One may always reduce *any literature* to allegories if one wishes — and make a detailed case of it, too. Yet Morton Smith makes a case for a historical Jesus of the exorcist variety.’

    We might all remember, Johannes Weiss (1892), who announced that since Jesus used the Jewish term, “Kingdom of God,” that he “must have” spoken as a strictly conservative Jewish reader, so that any Gentile bits in the NT “must have” been added by Paul and *his* followers.

    It seems to me that most NT scholars of the 20th century followed Weiss! But Weiss was wrong, I say. Morton Smith (1978) offers a far more plausible scenario for Jesus’ words and deeds — including the Passion.

    As for the trope that the Messiah was *never* meant to wage a PHYSICAL war against EARTHLY opponents: the Jewish concept of a heavenly Messiah can be found in the later Prophets, including Daniel’s Son of Man.

    SOMEBODY had to explain the failure of God’s promise that a son of David would sit upon the throne of Jerusalem forever. Oh — God must have meant the SPIRITUAL Jerusalem! And that requires a Spiritual Messiah.

    Yes, for Smith, Jesus’ literal version of the Kingdom of God was entirely SPIRITUAL, like the latter OT prophets. So, Weiss was mistaken.

    P.S. Since you mentioned the Book of Revelation, I offer Judith M. Ford (Anchor Bible Commentary, 1975) who argued well that since chapters 4-17 of Revelation NEVER mention the words “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Jesus Christ,” or “Christ Jesus*, they must be PRE-CHRISTIAN, that is, composed by the community of John the Baptist, perhaps before Jesus was baptized.

    The fire and brimstone sermon style of the Baptist seen in the Synoptics is evidence for Ford. If she’s correct (and I say she is) the Book of Revelation (at least those chapters) should be counted as the FIRST book of the NT, not the last.

    Thank you.

    1. The fundamental problem I have with Morton Smith’s approach (and with most historical Jesus research) is that it is grounded in circularity — as long acknowledged within the scholarship. The assumption is that the narrative originated in true events and that the authors were attempting to relay those events with their own theological spin. I know of no other historical approach that relies upon such a method — though that circularity seems to be taken for granted (or grudgingly accepted as inevitable) among biblical scholars. My approach is to work with hypotheses that can be established with independent controls in an effort to avoid that circularity.

      I think there is much to learn from Morton Smith’s studies, by the way. I don’t dismiss him as a scholar, I should add.

      But as for whether a text was constructed as allegory, yes, we can always imagine or pretend any text is an allegory. But I don’t believe the arguments for Mark being allegorical are so flippant but do rest on serious textual analysis, not circularity or creative imagination.

      As for Revelation, since reading Witulski I have become open to a Hadrianic date for that work. Witulski certainly does not see conventional Christianity as it is known to us since the major Church Fathers behind that book, though.

      Given the state of the evidence all round, though, I think and hope I continue to remain open to revising my views the more I learn and unlearn.

    2. You have sent me back to my marked copy of Smith’s Jesus the Magician (I delved into it at a time I was reading a wide variety of historical Jesus studies) and I see that I noted at the time that Smith’s arguments are fundamentally nested in the “criteria of authenticity” paradigm. I don’t think he actually refers to “criteria of authenticity” but anyone familiar with this approach will recognize the roots of his reasoning.

      For example: I see in my marked copy of Jesus the Magician that Smith frequently says something like “This would have happened/been historical”… I don’t believe that other historians employ such a method. They rely on clear evidence — not “what would be likely” (given all our other assumptions).

      That’s not how historical reconstruction works (that is, a reconstruction that asserts X is a “fact” because it would have been too embarrassing for such and such to have been swept under the carpet and on that basis it must be true) except in the field of biblical studies…. unless someone can show me I have been badly under-informed.

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