Exploring the crucifixion scene looking for subtlety.
Did he die on the cross? Short answer: the Gospel says yes.
I know I’m not the first to ask this question.
But it was sort of echoing around in my head the most recent time I read through the Gospel. Enough so that I began to notice things – little odd, quirky things, like maybe the biblical author(s) were trying to get my attention, to make me ask that question: “Well, did Jesus really die on the cross?”
Could someone named Jesus the Nazarene have died by crucifixion, charged with insurrection, in the first century? Sure. Jesus was a common name; insurrection not an uncommon offense; crucifixion a known method of execution. But the author(s) of the series named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not writing with the style you expect of a twenty-first century newspaper article, but more with a style that is designed to make you start on a journey of unparalleled spiritual discovery. You might not find what you expect.
It would seem that there are other possible stories within the crucifixion story. Not complete stories, but enough fragments or clues so that you start to imagine there are other alternative stories just beneath the surface. This layering is fascinating.
Do you see it, too?
I believe the biblical authors either deliberately put difficult passages in their texts to jolt the reader or were indifferent to or unaware of possible reader reactions to these. In one instance I discuss immediately below, the author seems to care more about symbolism and whether the scriptures have been fulfilled than about reader reaction. In three other cases I discuss later below, the way the texts are translated results in distortions that make the texts even more puzzling.
Issue one – the timing:
“Pilate was surprised to hear that he [Jesus] was already dead.” (Mark 15:44 (TNIV))
If I were living in the first century, writing a book to convince people that Jesus had actually died prior to his resurrection appearances, “Pilate was surprised” is not something I would write.
The King James says Pilate “marvelled if he [Jesus] were already dead.” The NRSV damps this down to “wondered.”
Is part of the purpose of the biblical authors to keep us guessing? To keep the reader off-balance? Maybe the purpose of the writings is not to convey doctrine or dogma, but to get the reader questioning and analyzing.
I think the purpose of the biblical author may be more than simply to tell a story. Rather, an element of uncertainty is perhaps deliberately introduced by the author in order to start the reader questioning. This is a more satisfying experience for the mature reader than a story that is arranged basically like a fairytale with little opportunity for the mind to wander and wonder. Does the biblical author intentionally make it difficult for the reader to answer the question, “Did he die on the cross?”
If so, seems like this was a good strategy seeing as how the Gospel is still popular nearly two thousand years later.
But maybe “Pilate was surprised” is just a mistake by the biblical author, an error in judgment? I have to say that after many decades of reading and writing, I believe I can tell the difference, with reasonable certainty, when someone is misspeaking and when someone has just tweaked me. But I can’t prove it to you – you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Two of the men crucified alongside Jesus were still alive after the many hours of torture on their crosses. So why did Jesus die and not them? Or was Jesus still alive also? It is an obvious question that comes to mind.
When Pilate orders that the men be killed and taken down off their crosses because of the approaching Sabbath, the presumption is that all the men are still alive (John 19:31-37 (TNIV)). And yes, the order is to kill the men – “breaking the legs” kills them because (according to recent theory) their breathing is impeded because they hang from their arms, and they are no longer able to push themselves up to draw breath and they asphyxiate more quickly. Only John has this gruesome episode.
But Jesus is not killed this way because, “when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already . . . . one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side.” (John 19:33-34 (KJV)) If you’re like me you’ve heard or read that sentence many times without any questioning whatsoever, but now think about it. Does it say, “The soldiers couldn’t tell if Jesus was already dead and so one stuck a spear into his side.”? No, the soldiers are sure. Supposedly. So why does the soldier stick the spear? Because he is not sure? Just some target practice? A puzzle. What do we make of this?
How can the soldiers tell if one crucified is dead just by looking at him? They “saw” he was dead, but the account does not say they examined the body in any way. What if he was pretending to be dead?
Why does it say the soldier pierced Jesus’ “side”? Why not “heart”? “Side” is rather vague; left side being all of the torso left of the midline and right side the reverse. And “pierced”? Just a scratch? The wound would not necessarily have been fatal to a man still alive.
The author of John says that blood and water gushed out of the spear wound. Such blood loss would not necessarily be fatal to a man still alive. The biblical writer says this is “testimony,” (19:35) but evidently it is testimony about whether the scriptures have been “fulfilled,” (19:36) not whether Jesus had actually died.
Maybe we are supposed to infer that this is miraculous blood that will never coagulate? Numerous schemers over the centuries hawking “the genuine blood of the Christ” would say yes. But then, if Jesus had just died, we would expect his blood would still flow out. Gravity alone could make it flow. Or maybe the blood has to flow so the imagery of Jesus-As-Human-Sacrifice can be more satisfying to those who think there is a god who is like a demon who needs a blood-payment.
And by the way, I have now come around in my thinking and have concluded that we need to always remember our roots – that somewhere in the past of humankind, and still today, there are people who believe the world was designed and is ruled by a supreme being who is like a demon and who is an Adversary to us, harming us, and this dark thinking must always be countered with some better idea, lest human sacrifice be seen as an effective way of controlling the demon. The New Testament doesn’t let us forget the darkness and also gives us a better idea of a God of Love and Peace (2Co 13:11 (KJV)).
The biblical author maybe doesn’t mind giving the reader a case of consternation with “Pilate was surprised,” but I believe that ultimately the reason Jesus has to die quickly is so that the scriptures can be “fulfilled” (“A bone of him shall not be broken” (John 19:36 (KJV)). A quick death meant that Jesus did not suffer mutilation; rather, he just had the marks of crucifixion. This put Jesus in stark contrast with a contemporary savior, the lord Attis, who was castrated.a And if one can believe what one reads online in Google, Attis was tricked into doing this to himself by the goddess Cybele, his mother, in order to ensure his sexual fidelity to her. No wonder the people were ready for a new Way! The Jesus crucifixion scene may possibly reveal Pauline Christianity’s reform position which we would expect was firmly against the making of eunuchs, a position not revealed when Jesus side-steps the issue in Matthew 19:12 (read it carefully – Jesus does not take a position). Or rather, read it carefully if your particular translation even allows you to see that some have “made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” (KJV) At this point, the first-century reader could begin to question if Jesus was a new kind of savior who did not do this. Paul was strongly opposed to even the Jewish circumcision. We can speculate whether there is a residue of these ancient practices in the celibacy requirements of the Roman Catholic Church.
A friend has directed me to the wording in the Catholic Mass which says, “He broke the bread . . . . and said . . . . ‘this is my body’” (from Eucharistic prayers in Saint Joseph Sunday Missal – the fourth Eucharistic prayer varies only slightly). I will guess that this theme of a lord who breaks apart his very own body as part of a salvific process is older than Christianity.
Well, I actually have no ability to read the minds of the Gospel authors and maybe the historical Jesus died quickly and that’s all there is to it.
Issue two – the centurion’s witness:
Next we have the Roman centurion. This is one of the soldiers participating in the execution of Jesus, presumably their commanding officer. At some point he is emotionally overwhelmed by the earthquakes (and eclipse of the sun?) that happen during the crucifixion and he exclaims, “Surely, this man was a son of a god.” (paraphrase Matthew 27:54) A first-century Roman would not say “the Son of God,” not having a concept of only-god-only-son in his culture. The RSV has in a footnote “or a son.” So why don’t they put that more likely translation in the text for us to read instead of down in a footnote!!! A son! Not the Son! The NRSV finesses this with “God’s Son” and a footnote that says, “or a son of God.” Why not just have the translation say what the Greek says? Maybe the biblical texts aren’t orthodox enough for the translators? Yes, I am grateful they allow me to see the actual meaning, even if it is only in a footnote, and I have to say, that overall, the NRSV is the best version I have studied.
Luke goes even further, having the centurion proclaim Jesus’ innocence, “Certainly this was a righteous man.” (Luke 23:47 (KJV)) Next, the centurion, now on record as being a newly-minted follower of Jesus and in public disagreement with his commander Pilate who ordered the execution, is called in to Pilate to confirm that Jesus is in fact dead. So do you think that the centurion is now an impartial witness? Will the centurion lie to protect Jesus (if he is still alive) because the centurion has just become Jesus’ follower and is convinced he is innocent? (Mark 15:44-45)
Mark 15:39 says the centurion “saw that he [Jesus] thus breathed his last.” (RSV) How does one “see” such a thing with any certainty? Maybe the centurion did not know whether Jesus had died.
Notice that Mark says, “[Pilate] learned from the centurion that it was so” (Mark 15:45 (TNIV)). Interesting word: “learned.” We are not told that the centurion lied, but we can infer that Pilate may have misunderstood or may have been deliberately misled as he “learned” about the facts.
What were the biblical authors thinking as they wrote “Pilate was surprised” and “Pilate learned”? Did they mean to make readers question what is happening in the story? Or did the story get twisted around by malicious editing copyists? I think that if the quirkiness of the story were not intentional or if it was just mean-spirited additions to text, it would have been corrected early on by the Christian community. I think the authors and those who preserved the story wanted certain questions to leap into the minds that encountered it. The story is supposed to capture your imagination, not be dry as a legal brief or an encyclopedia article. It is not intended to “prove” something.
Or maybe the questions arise in part because the translations distort the meaning? A quick glance at Grosvenor’s Analysis tells me the Greek verb in Mark 15:45 means “come to know” and the KJV has “knew it.” So coming to know something from someone is somewhat different than “learning” it from them. Perhaps a better translation would be, “The centurion confirmed for Pilate that it was so.” A better translation doesn’t completely end the question of the centurion’s reliability, only makes it less obvious. A subtle, low key approach seems to me to be the method of the Gospel authors; not shouting from the rooftops.
Issue three – the evidence:
Let’s take a look at the evidence and see if there is good chain-of-custody. The evidence is the body. Who had custody? Who examined the body?
One would assume that the family would be allowed to come and take Jesus’ body down from the cross, or followers (who dared) would come forward to do this. But no. The followers only watch from a distance, presumably far enough away so they will not get snagged by the Romans. A few women stand at the cross (John) but do not receive the body. This is in fact what the Bible tells us, despite artwork many centuries later that make it appear to be a group effort with saints standing around or climbing up at the cross with a handy ladder, or that the Holy Mother receives the body (Pieta by Michelangelo), etc. The only people who step forward to take charge of Jesus’ body are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, representatives of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the ruling council. (Are these two true disciples of Jesus or did they lobby for his death?? See below.) So the ruling council got custody of the body. (Matthew 27:57-61, Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56, John 3:1 and 19:38-42.)
There are actually no witnesses among Jesus’ family or followers who can state with certainty he died. All they know is that when they went looking for him, they found an empty tomb. At least the Bible gives no indication they had any access to the body to examine it (no one other than the dubious disciples Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus). The women, including his mother Mary and other women, did not participate in the burial, and only observed. (Matthew 27:61, Mark 15:47, Luke 23:55) For me, this is the strongest indication that something is wrong and we are supposed to be guessing what is really happening in this narrative. Can you imagine any mother calmly sitting on the sidelines while some men who are strangers?? to her perform the rituals that are the right and duty of her and her family! And yes, the “mother of Jose” is the mother of Jesus because Jose is a brother of Jesus. (Why another riddle at this critical juncture in the biblical text?) Mary is being restrained in some way? She is not allowed to come up to her son? (Possibly, this strange and awkward biblical scenario is the result of the patriarchal author’s recasting of the role of the Great Lady in prevailing mythology. See my post, Cana’s Bride for more.)
I discuss Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as viable witnesses below.
Issue four – the guard at the tomb:
The Gospel has Jesus proclaiming his coming death and also his coming resurrection. The Gospel makes it clear that such a potential resurrection is a big concern of the ruling council. The last thing they want is for him to come back! Or for his followers to be able to claim he came back and thus continue to promote their sect at the expense of the ruling clique and the Roman overlords. The council conspirators ask Pilate to post a guard at Jesus’ tomb, a tomb selected by Joseph of Arimathea – his own (Mt 27:60) – so that “the followers cannot steal the body and say he resurrected.” (paraphrase Matthew 27:62-66) So then Roman soldiers have custody of the body.
But at this point, oddly enough, there is a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. Permission for a guard is not requested until the day after the crucifixion! (Mt 27:62 (TNIV)) What happened during the intervening night?
Let me explain the situation: The women who are watching the tomb have to leave because of the law against traveling on the Sabbath (the Sabbath being sundown Friday through daylight hours Saturday). The women must get home before dark. Wealthier Jews (presumably the council conspirators are among these) can travel even on the Sabbath because they can afford servants who move items of property about so that the wealthy ones are never more than the regulated distance from “home” and thus technically in compliance with the Sabbath observation law. The Romans and all non-Jews are free to travel on the Sabbath.
Well, I was wondering if this apparent problem of a night without a guard at the tomb could be attributed to translation problems. I believe there are little “stumbling blocks” put in our way by the biblical authors, but not huge loopholes like a tomb left unguarded for the entire night following the crucifixion. I found a solution for that one.
Among the 30 and more different versions of the Gospel in English at Biblegateway.com, I believe only one 1 has a translation of Matthew 27:62 that approaches reasonableness. Most lead the reader to believe that the council waited until after sunrise the next day to request a guard for Jesus’ tomb with a time frame something like, “Now the next day, that following the Day of the Preparation” (KJ21). Only the MSG translates that as “After sundown.” Yes, what a brilliant solution! Of course, the Sabbath starts at sundown on the Day of Preparation. So the Jewish council does not wait until the “next day,” that is, as we tell time, after another sunrise (daybreak) or after midnight, to go to Pilate and request a guard; rather this could have happened immediately after sundown on the day of crucifixion, when Jesus had been in the tomb but a short while, and the council could still have had observers at the scene.
But that does not seem to be the complete solution. I am still bothered by the idea that the Jewish leaders would be conducting business, that is, asking the Roman governor for permission to set a guard, and not resting as The Law required on the Sabbath. I attempted to translate the Greek myself, a really exasperating task since I don’t know much Greek, but could this be a possible, and more workable translation?
τη δε επαυριον ητις εστιν μετα την παρασκευην
“It was amidst Preparations, not yet the morrow”
Google’s translator (modern Greek) seems to be saying that it was not yet the morrow. And my Thayer’s tells me δε (d-e) can mean to the contrary (negating). Thayer’s also says μετα (m-e-t-a) can mean amid, in the midst of. So possibly, the council asked Pilate for a guard while Jesus was still on the cross or as he was being buried. Well, I could be completely wrong about “not yet the morrow,” but I think we can assume it was at most just past sundown on the day of crucifixion when the guard was installed. Given the presence of Jewish leaders at the crucifixion and given that the tomb was nearby, it is at least possible that all this was being monitored by them and the tomb was not left unobserved at any point prior to the resurrection. But the Gospel authors do not tell us definitely one way or another; rather they allow us to puzzle.
Issue five – the expiring cry:
Is there yet another problem with the Gospel story? Or is it not a problem, but rather another opportunity for us to exercise discernment, build awareness? We read in Mark 15:37 (RSV) that Jesus gave a “loud cry,” then expired. Recent theory is that the cause of death in a crucifixion is asphyxiation. One has to ask if a man dying from asphyxiation has enough breath to give out a “loud cry.” Or would a loud cry be merely a performance, to make his torturers believe he was expiring, but in fact, playing dead so that he would be removed from the cross? Any man with even a grain of intelligence might do this. Matthew and Luke have “cried again with a loud voice / crying with a loud voice” (RSV). John has no expiring cry. Would readers in the first-century knowing how a crucifixion killed, be quick to get an understanding here that a man who was able to utter a “loud cry” might possibly still be very much alive? Was he? My opinion is that there is no one alive today who could know enough about the effect of this torture on human physiology to say yes or no. Possibly no one in biblical times knew what were the limits of human endurance on a cross.
Each book of the Gospel states that Jesus died on the cross and it would seem, within the context of the story, to be incontrovertible, despite whatever else may or may not be going on within the story:
Mt 27:50 “Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.” (KJV) (“breathed his last” or “gave up his spirit” (NRSV))
Mk 15:37 “And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.” (KJV) (“gave a loud cry” and “breathed his last” (NRSV))
Lk 23:46 “And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.” (KJV) (“breathed his last” (NRSV))
Jn 19:30 “When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, it is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.” (KJV) (“had received the wine” . . . . “gave up his spirit” (NRSV))
Well, in these verses, the King James evidently tried to harmonize differing texts in the Gospel (the NRSV corrects the KJV); and there are apparently different variants?? for Matthew which indicates a scribal editor tried to harmonize?? But despite this tinkering with the texts, we get the idea that Jesus died on the cross.
Obviously I can’t prove the Gospel authors have deliberately constructed mind-altering detours. Maybe it’s just me. But whether there is a detour or not, the authors let us know firmly that Jesus died on the cross.
Issue six – two dubious disciples:
I seem to detect another story layer or story fragment and so maybe there is yet another alternative story? Why did I say that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus might be bad guys? Maybe they are!
Let’s start with Nicodemus. This was a man who was a member of the Jewish council (the Sanhedrin) in first-century Jerusalem, a ruling elite of approximately seventy elders. Nicodemus would have bought into the system big time. Was he capable of throwing away all that prestige, his position, his power, in order to follow Jesus? Jesus didn’t know. That is why when this Nicodemus came to Jesus, ostensibly with a change of heart and ready to learn from Jesus, coming in the middle of the night because he was supposedly “afraid” his council colleagues might find out, and giving Jesus some empty flattery, Jesus was wary. Did he give Nicodemus the secret to the Kingdom? Hardly. Jesus gave Nicodemus a riddle. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:1-21 (TNIV)) This is a riddle because in the original Greek, the word for “wind” is the same as the word for “spirit.” So it can also mean “The wind blows where it will . . . . so it is with everyone born of the wind.” You get the idea. How this could actually have been said by Jesus in his own language which was Aramaic I’m sure I don’t know. But it makes for a good story in Greek. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “You are Israel’s teacher . . . . and do you not understand these things? . . . . you people do not accept our testimony.” (TNIV) Jesus is definitely distrusting, holding reservations. (Or scolding him?) Does Jesus think Nicodemus is evil? See John 3:20 where Jesus may still be speaking to Nicodemus who came in the darkness of night: “For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.” (KJV)
Was Nicodemus untrustworthy? Apparently yes. Matthew and Mark (but not John which is silent) say that all the members of the council were involved in getting the death penalty for Jesus. (Matthew 26:59 “whole Sanhedrin” & 27:1-2 “all the chief priests and the elders,” Mark 15:1 “whole Sanhedrin” (TNIV)) “The whole council” would include Nicodemus and another council member who enters the picture later – Joseph of Arimathea (Mk 15:43, Jn 3:1). So are these two really bad guys after all? Luke evidently has a different opinion about this and states emphatically that Joseph of Arimathea is really OK and had not agreed with the council (Luke 23:50-51 (TNIV)). So first the entire council is bad (in Matthew and Mark) and then one council member is not bad? Did Luke write that or just some well-meaning editor? Matthew and Mark do not make this reversal. Nowhere is Nicodemus so vindicated of being involved! John’s writer is the only one who has Nicodemus and seems to be setting him up as a bad guy, not trusted by Jesus in their nighttime conversation. There are other passages saying that Joseph of Arimathea is a good man, but without specifically addressing the unanimity of the council (Mt 27:57, Mk 15:43, Jn 19:38). So we have conflicting passages that seem to be tugging us in different directions.
By the way, Luke says that Arimathea is a Judean town (23:51). I defy you to find it on a map. The town disappeared? There’s a hotel by that name.
You won’t believe this but my Bible fell open to 1Maccabees where the good guy has a specially arranged meeting with a bad guy named Nicanor who wants to “kidnap” him. (7:27-31 (NRSV)) I wasn’t looking for that and didn’t even recall it. The similarity in names is quite obvious: Nicodemus means “conqueror of the people” and Nicanor means “conqueror” in Greek (Thayer’s). The Hebrew version of 1Maccabees (if there ever was one?) is lost to history according to the Catholic Edition and only the Greek remains. So not a surprise to find a Greek name in a Greek text. For Nicodemus, “victory of the community” might be a translation more compatible with New Testament themes. Was the author of John aware of the 1Maccabees story? Did he borrow from it?
Recall that Joseph of Arimathea had no problem gaining access to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. Did Pilate assume Joseph of Arimathea was a representative of the council? Yes. He wouldn’t be granted an audience if Pilate figured he was a nobody. If Pilate thought he was one of the rebels, Pilate might have instead had him arrested. Was Pilate deceived? So the text has us wondering if Joseph of Arimathea is acting like a representative of the council because that is in fact what he is, and not a true disciple. One clue – Nicodemus is now so bold as to step forward publicly and help with the burial. No more slinking in the dark. So was he just pretending fear before? So did he ever have a real change of heart? Why wasn’t he hiding in the shadows like the real disciples? What is his motivation for participating in the burial?
All my concerns here about two “bad guys” are based on the apparent unanimity of the “whole” Sanhedrin of which they are members and that unanimity is perhaps something that needs another look. But I think I would exhaust myself if I tried to do the Greek for that. How likely is it that the full council was even present for a nighttime session (early morning in Luke)? (Matthew 26:59, Mark 15:1, (TNIV)) Certainly, if the Sanhedrin were not all present or were not unanimous, then my imaginings about Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, council members (Mk 15:43, Jn 3:1) come to naught, because then there is no problem having them be good guys. Looking at 30 plus translations for just one verse, Matthew 26:59,2 shows a few translators try to be more realistic and don’t make accusations against the whole Sanhedrin:
ERV – “ The leading priests and the high council”
MSG – “The high priests, conspiring with the Jewish Council”
NLV – “The religious leaders and the other leaders and all the court”
WE – “The chief priests and all the judges of the court”
Contrast these few translations which limit the decision making to a “high” council or “judges” or a “court,” or make it a conspiracy, not decision making, with the many other translations which say “all” or the “whole” council did it. Certainly, this is something to think about – the desirability of this latter kind of literal interpretation that has been the basis for anti-Semitism and which accuses 70 plus men of acting, unrealistically, lock-step in concert. The idea that “all” might be merely all of those present or a quorum or a sub-committee or a select court or a cabal deserves at least a footnote by Bible publishers, as this seems to be the sense in Luke (22:66 “the assembly of the elders . . . . brought him to their council” & 23:1 “the assembly rose as a body” (NRSV)). Doesn’t say the whole council.
For Mark 15:1, the TNIV has the whole council make the decision, but the NRSV has them acting only as consultants. Nevertheless, in both versions, “they,” presumably the whole council, hand Jesus over to Pilate. Or does “they” in the NRSV refer back to the chief priests instead? “As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.” Who are “they”? Or maybe the TNIV also pushes the responsibility off on the chief priests instead? “Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.” Not really clear who made the decision or who led Jesus away. Regardless, in both the TNIV and the NRSV, Matthew 26:59 has the whole Sanhedrin involved: “The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death” and “Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death.”
Retaining anti-Semitic translations can lead one to question if Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were among those who condemned Jesus. Would that be thinking fostered by the biblical authors? I’m all for literal translations of the Bible, but not if it leads to meanings that the original author didn’t mean. Where is the onsite witness of loyal disciples that Jesus actually died on the cross if Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are suspect? My understanding is that in Jewish tradition at that time, two witnesses were needed in a court to corroborate a truth. Nowhere is Nicodemus vindicated of being part of the unanimous council if indeed we take it to be unanimous.
Unless we come to the conclusion that we should allow Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to be good guys, we have to look with suspicion on all their activities. Are they up to something nefarious?
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus do the burial rite. Why are they toting 100 pounds of burial spices (myrrh and aloes)? (NRSV) We can guess this is a funeral custom to put this material over the body, and in fact John tells us “spices” are wrapped in the burial clothes. So the spices are ground finely to almost a powder? But 100 pounds? Wouldn’t that be overdoing it? Do they intend to cover the body with a mountain of spices?? Are they planning to snatch the body (or kidnap an unconscious Jesus) and leave a mountain of spices as a ruse?? I’m trying to use my imagination here.
Now I haven’t a clue how many pounds of spices would be appropriate. It could be that the spices play no role in the drama unfolding, other than to be a legitimate dressing. Maybe we are supposed to understand that “spices” means not ground-up leaves or other vegetation, but rather an ointment, perfume, or oil made from spice plants, and it is 100 pounds because it is contained in heavy clay jars or pots. Or maybe we are supposed to understand that there is a great quantity of the spices as would be appropriate for the burial of a king. If we knew the expense, we might think it was even more appropriate for a king. Who knows!
The Gospel story would not have been easy for first-century readers to understand either. Arimathea is a word meaning evil-goddess; Arima being the Persian principle of evil, and thea, Greek for goddess. So first-century readers expecting the Great Lady to come and resurrect her son would be confronted with the patriarchal “evil goddess.” But perhaps the less erudite would see only spelling errors: they would think that a-r-i-m-a was really a-r-o-m-a, meaning aromatic spices. They would see what would be to them, meaningless “th-a-i-a,” a phonetic translated now into English as thea to reflect the correct Greek spelling of th-e-a. Well, I don’t know much Greek, but that’s my guess as to what it all means. The author of John, presumably writing later, adds the less offensive “Nicodemus.”
Why is Jesus anointed twice for burial and then yet a third attempt is made? A week earlier Jesus had been anointed at a dinner by a woman with a jar of nard, an expensive perfume (Jn 12:3), at least Jesus pronounces it an anointing for his coming burial (Mk 14:8). After that, Jesus is taken from the cross and anointed by members of the council, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (John). Then the Marys try to anoint (other books). Are we supposed to see hints of an alternative story that the anointing by the council members was not acceptable to the family?
By the way, I’ll add at this point that I think the 100 pounds of “spices” could be like the anointing perfume in John 12:3, a liquid or ointment in containers, and not powder.
I believe the Gospel authors want the reader to be challenged and to question the integrity and motives of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus – somewhat – but any problems with these two should be barely detectable in the translation, only the most subtle hint. By having the entire Sanhedrin involved unanimously against Jesus (as if this were the impeachment of a US president before the full House, and not a nighttime hearing before “all the officials present” to decide whether to hand over an insurgent to the occupying forces) all subtlety is lost – at a minimum, Nicodemus becomes a bad guy. Also lost – the presence of joint witnesses at the burial.
If we decide to take each book of the Gospel independently, ignoring the likelihood that John’s author had access to the other three books, and decide that Nicodemus is not affected by any claims of unanimity made in other books, then we also have to decide, to be consistent, that Luke’s vindication of Joseph of Arimathea does not apply in Matthew and Mark where there is no such vindication, which gets us nowhere. It is ironic that this matter of the alliance, motives, and guilt of the only two witnesses at the burial (other than women who were observers, not participants) hinges on whether translations are anti-Semitic (“the whole Sanhedrin did it”) or what would be more realistic (“all present did it”). If Christian organizations and Bible publishers insist on anti-Semitic translations, they call into question the essential witness of these two male disciples acting jointly (and in those days only men could be witnesses). I don’t think the original authors of the Gospel would go that far.
Or maybe they would?? In Acts 2, Peter allegedly blames the crucifixion on the whole city of Jerusalem. But James 5:1-6 blames the rich (vested interests? – presumably both Romans and their Jewish collaborators). Of course, I am not in favor of anti-Semitism.
Issue seven – the soldiers tale:
After the resurrection, some of the conspiring Jewish leaders tell the soldiers, “We’ll pay you well if you go about the city and tell everyone you were asleep on the job and the followers of Jesus came and stole his body.” (paraphrase Matthew 28:11-15) But how can the soldiers know who stole the body if they were “asleep”? OK pretty obvious.
Another problem: would the soldiers be likely to go about saying they were derelict in their duty, if it could get them killed and we read in Acts 12:19 that in another instance, yes, such dereliction was punished by death. Life was cheap in those days. Would the soldiers believe that these Jewish leaders, who had just handed over one of their own countrymen to be tortured to death, could be trusted to keep the soldiers out of trouble? (Mt 28:14)
Well evidently, the soldiers didn’t have a problem taking big money from the conspirators and telling everyone Jesus’ body was stolen – the money made the risk worthwhile. Or maybe we are supposed to make a guess that the soldiers know something about the tomb that the conspirators and the reader don’t know?? Or the soldiers knew they could not be disciplined (or killed) for making a statement that could not be used against them in any formal proceedings because it was a nonsequitur (“while we slept this happened”).
Despite the questions generated by the biblical texts, and slight detours, we are drawn back to the main theme by the presence of an angel (or two) at the Easter tomb in each of the four books of the Gospel. The angel messengers not only speak with authority (on behalf of the Gospel authors) but represent our inner knowing that our spiritual resurrection is happening despite all outer appearances.
You have to admit the biblical accounts leave a lot of room for alternative theories about what might have happened. How many ways can the story be interpreted? How many ways can it be interpreted imaginatively? An infinite number of ways? Maybe you can stretch your mind trying to figure out your own interpretation?
Well, what really happened? Was the story A-B-C or was the story X-Y-Z? Is there some reaction we are supposed to have or some spiritual realization we are supposed to come up with? When we read the Gospel (and there is only one Gospel, four versions), are we supposed to vote and say, yes, I agree with A-B-C and ignore X-Y-Z? Are we supposed to sit back and wait for some Bible-thumping preacher to spoon-feed us the “correct” interpretation, or are we supposed to leap in feet first or dive in head-first and put the pieces of the puzzle together ourselves?
Yes but nevertheless, I have to give considerable deference to the interpretation that is the product of tradition, the sense of the communities of Christians over the centuries, part of a body of knowledge reaching back to the first century and even earlier, and be guided by that, especially those aspects of the tradition that seem particularly wise, wise enough to be the working of Spirit.
What about a problem like the stone closing the tomb entrance? All four books have the stone rolled away or taken away in resurrection passages, but only two books, Matthew and Mark, have the stone placed there initially. A mistake or a puzzling paradox?
If we can have Jesus-As-Human-Sacrifice to appease an angry demon-like god and at the same time, a divinity who needs no sacrifice, who is Love and Providence, then there is paradox built into the basic framework of the Gospel. This paradox reflects the reform efforts of the biblical writers, who were leading people of that time and place away from the idea that an Adversary needed to be bribed with blood, or that the Universe could be fixed by brutal blood-letting. This was an evolution in thinking. Likewise, the biblical authors try to engage the reader, try to reach into my mind, into your mind, and start an evolution there in awareness. The reader is asked to absorb the various story elements and make some sense of them. Think how the youngest readers among us interpret the story. Most barely notice anything about it. (They just wait for the Easter bunny.) The mature mind is acted upon by the Gospel and is supposed to draw something from it. It is not a story for couch potatoes. The Gospel follows a pattern you see in Life: many situations – what do you make of them? If you do not gain the ability to sort things out, find some good, find some hope, you will drown in it all. So the Gospel is a spiritual exercise that mimics Life and gives you greater ability to cope with Life – sort out the story, some of it is going to surprise you – some of it will give you hope and renew you, help you become you.
Christianity is something the believer is supposed to be able to put on like a cloak: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Galatians 3:27 (TNIV). A gossamer cloak. That is why the texts are woven so lightly. It is not supposed to be like dressing in chain mail, each link of iron bound unbreakably to the next and the ensemble weighing enough to capsize the average-sized person. The biblical authors leave room for you to sort things out in your mind, to think things through for yourself.
Gossamer is a word related to spider webs floating in the air in calm clear weather (my Webster’s). Buddha tells us of a raft that we take to our destination. Notice it is a raft, not an iron-plated battleship. Jesus says his yoke is easy, burden not heavy (Mt 11:30). He says pack lightly for the journey (Mk 6:8-9). When you create your “treasures in heaven” (Mt 6:20) make sure your treasures are light enough for you to be able to juggle them in your mind, else your castles in the air will have the buoyancy of lead balloons.
Did Jesus die on a cross and did he rise from a tomb? I have the feeling that if and when the answers to that and the conundrum of our Life Experience become apparent, the answers will be inescapable. For now, just finding suitable questions is enough for me. I don’t have to be infallible.
Why all the flexibility in the Gospel? Why so many ways to interpret it? Why so many levels of understanding? Why fragmentary story lines and little puzzles? Why isn’t the Gospel only three-dimensional? Why!!! Think about it!
Am I supposed to construct a new story from the subtleties in the Gospel and cling to that new story? (“Jesus survived the cross and went to India where he lived to be 99, da-da-da.”) Am I supposed to substitute one story for another? No. Those who know nothing of the thinking of the East (and I don’t claim to know much about it), might think that they need to be attached to some particular story or another. The biblical authors make it impossible for the careful reader to suffer from attachment to the texts – to become attached in a way that would be burdensome or counter-productive to one’s spiritual growth and enlightenment.
We need to try to understand our sacred texts in the light of the beliefs that may have been known and understood by the authors of the texts (whatever beliefs these were, Hebrew, Eastern, and Mediterranean Pagan??), not in the light of the understanding of the Western Barbarians who adopted the texts as their own.
Can we infer the mind-set and the purpose of the biblical writers by examining the texts, put together in a way that reminds me of what is called “modern art” or better yet, a modern art collage. Not all the pieces seem to fit at first, but then improbably, they make a pleasing whole. Certainly, the authors of the New Testament were familiar with The Law, and could have written testimonials or histories that were like legal documents. They didn’t. The New Testament is very readable and welcoming. And we are very grateful for that. You know, if the Gospel was first drafted today just as it is, no leading Christian organization would agree to publish it – instead they would give us a Gospel that was more like a Reader’s Digest article or the Vatican Catechism.
The Gospel stories are designed to get you using your imagination, as I have here in this post, or at least your analytical abilities. The Gospel stories are designed to get you thinking, not tell you what to think. What do you think is the nature of reality? What is your life? Who are you essentially? What is eternity? Is the Divine merciful and life-restoring? Is there a Divine? Does your life have a purpose? A good purpose? What is your relationship to and responsibility for your neighbors, your battered Planet, and all of creation? And so on. Yes, the Gospel stories invite interpretation – think how many thousands of sermons are written each week doing just that – interpreting.
The richness and layering of the Gospel stories have the effect that each time you read them, you can find more spiritual truths within, and you can view the stories differently than before (interesting how one’s perception keeps shifting). When I finish reading the Gospel, do I come away with the idea that something has been “proven”? Or do I come away with “Good News”?
I’m not sure the believer is ever supposed to stop being “clothed with Christ.” In any event, it is an ample Christ-cloak, not the least constricting or too weighty. Perhaps the anomalies in the Gospel texts are designed to function like fly-paper – lure in the flies and they stick on (and don’t leave). Certainly, I find the inconsistencies and irregularities, even apparent problems, to be irresistible. I believe it is possible to keep learning from the Gospel, to never tire of it, to never outgrow it.
Are the four books of the Gospel four independent histories, or are they rather four delicately balanced sections of one Gospel, balanced relative to each other, designed to act upon the reader and cultivate awareness in him or her, or even induce a certain state of awareness, to cause the mind to teeter-totter, to oscillate between doubt and certainty – as was famously said – both opposites to faith? Many people would find this question totally alien and alienating. What I am presenting is a far cry from the way the biblical texts are usually presented, as a sort of “opiate” with Jesus as a sort of teddy bear – where people are not engaged; rather, they are preached at, offered consolation, and told they don’t have to think for themselves. There is really no harm in this but learning maybe is deferred.
What is the importance of questioning? Certainly if more people had been able to reason clearly about “weapons of mass destruction” there would have been no “war in error.” Schools today do not teach students to analyze, lead, create, only to regurgitate supposed facts. Is the ability to question critical to the ability to analyze, lead, create, and have clear thinking? The spiritual journey requires discernment. We must be “wise as serpents and guileless as doves” (Mt 10:16 (Confraternity Ed)), and guileless does not mean gullible. So the biblical authors deliberately insert “stumbling blocks” to teach and help us on our journey; Life being the ultimate teacher?
Could it have been that the original author or authoring group of the Gospel was anti-Christian, trying to bring doubt into Christian communities to destroy them? I think that the textual problems I highlighted in this post are so subtle, that scenario is unlikely. (Or the problems would be subtle if the translations didn’t distort.) The Gospel authors have set up four varying versions, staged with motifs of death and resurrection from the Pagan world, in order to provide the reader with a sophisticated and beneficial spiritual exercise, something to be experienced.
Those who try to use the New Testament to bind people to cult-like thinking, “You must all believe exactly like me or else the father-god will harm you by tossing you into a hell,” do not understand a basic purpose of the Gospel authors which was to free people from slavish devotion to the myths of that era – myths of the death and resurrection of a lord – and to reform practices that needed to be reformed (ritual sex and meat trade at temples, making of eunuchs, incestuous deities). The biblical authors transform myth by adding challenging story elements and build on ideas of inner peace, love of neighbor, greater awareness, and divinity in our humanness.
So you want to know – did Jesus die on the cross? Personally, I think a main theme of the story is that he did. If I don’t accept that premise when I read the texts, I have nothing to use as a baseline in my wanderings in which I appreciate the richness (and the idiosyncrasies) of the texts. I think the reader has to accept the premise that Jesus, the main character, actually dies on the cross in the story, because the Gospel says he does and because that supports the resurrection and the story elements of victory and hope.
The myth of the young lord dying and shedding saving blood would have been well-known to the Pagans of the first-century; indeed, this myth had been well-known for millennia. The biblical author has a bit of fun keeping the texts from becoming stultifyingly trite for his/her contemporary readers. That the young lord actually dies on the tree of the cross is not really ever in doubt either for the author or the author’s readers. They know the story too well and could not be expected to interpret it any other way, at least not seriously. It would lose its meaning for them otherwise.
Whether an historical Jesus actually died on the cross or not, would not have been a real issue for either the biblical author or his/her contemporary readers, if Jesus the Nazarene was a figure who was well-known at that time at least locally, if they remembered that he had died on a cross and thought of him as a hero, and had no problem ascribing to him various attributes of the “young-saving-lord;” if in their view Jesus resembled him. The biblical author weaves uncertainties into the story, but I believe only for the purpose of adding interest, engaging the reader, developing the reader’s awareness, and transforming the power of myth. I don’t think we are supposed to take that as disputing the historical Jesus’ crucifixion, anymore than we would seriously question if JFK was assassinated.
Why did I bother writing this post? Maybe Pilate was surprised – just an historical fact – so what. Maybe the centurion didn’t mislead. Maybe Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were good guys and were not even at Jesus’ hearing. But what an interesting journey I have had; so it wasn’t a waste of time!
Let me ask you a question. Are you capable of reading the Gospel carefully and making up your own mind? If so, you are able to have a journey of unparalleled spiritual discovery. Bon voyage!
Your own interpretation of the Gospel (within the framework of tradition) is what will work best for you.
The Gospel is tiny compared to the vast writings in the Christian tradition, but we are very fortunate to have it at the center of Christianity. Not only is the Gospel a work of genius, not only is it a reflection of some ancient person or persons searching for the sacred, but it allows the reader to interact with the texts and make that experience their own and unique.
I can pity some of today’s young people raised on nothing but TV garbage, caring nothing for spiritual things. They are “of the world” with a limited set of reference points. But if I become wedded to a story, haven’t I just substituted one set of reference points for another? The Gospel authors write so loosely, leaving little gaps for us to fall through, so that we become no longer “of the world” (while still in it); rather, our growing wisdom, awareness, and awareness of our awareness can begin to count for more than the perceptions we gather.
Also, the idea of Immanuel (God with us, Mt 1:23) and other important ideas in the Gospel would have to transcend and surpass even the very words written to express them. The Gospel authors allow this to happen.
a Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman, Barnes & Noble Books, NY, 1976, 1993, pages 146, 148, 150 for information on the god Attis.