Layered Meanings

Jesus’ Death

Layered Meanings
Thursday, April 18, 2019
Holy Thursday

Two theologians I deeply respect, Marcus Borg (1942-2015) and John Dominic Crossan (b. 1934), offer important historical and symbolic context for the crucifixion. The theory of “penal substitutionary atonement” only became dominant in recent centuries. [1] Over the next two days, consider their advanced perspective on Jesus’ death on the cross:

This common Christian understanding goes far beyond what the New Testament says. Of course, sacrificial imagery is used there, but the language of sacrifice is only one of several different ways that the authors of the New Testament articulate the meaning of Jesus’s execution. They also see it as the domination system’s “no” to Jesus (and God), as the defeat of the powers that rule this world by disclosing their moral bankruptcy, as revelation of the path of transformation [dying and rising], and as disclosure of the depth of God’s love for us. . . .

Though Mark provides the earliest story of Good Friday . . . Mark’s narrative combines retrospective interpretation with history remembered. . . .

Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified between two “bandits.” The Greek word translated “bandits” is commonly used for guerilla fighters against Rome, who were either “terrorists” or “freedom fighters,” depending upon one’s point of view. Their presence in the story reminds us that crucifixion was used specifically for people who systematically refused to accept Roman imperial authority. Ordinary criminals were not crucified. Jesus is executed as a rebel against Rome between two other rebels against Rome. . . .

[When Jesus died,] “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). As with the darkness from noon to 3 PM, this event is best understood symbolically and not as history remembered. . . .

To say. . . that the curtain was torn in two has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, it is a judgment upon the temple and the temple authorities . . . who colluded with imperial Rome to condemn Jesus to death. On the other hand, . . . [it] is to affirm that the execution of Jesus means that access to God is now open. This affirmation underlines Mark’s presentation of Jesus earlier in the gospel: Jesus mediated access to God apart from the temple and the domination system that it had come to represent in the first century.

Then Mark narrates a second event contemporaneous with Jesus’s death. The imperial centurion in command of the soldiers who had crucified Jesus exclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:30). . . .

That this exclamation comes from a centurion is very significant. According to Roman imperial theology, the emperor was “Son of God”—the revelation of God’s power and will for the earth. According to the same theology, the emperor was Lord, Savior, and the one who had brought peace on earth. But now a representative of Rome affirms that this man, Jesus, executed by the empire, is the Son of God. Thus the emperor is not.

References:
[1] For more on atonement, see Richard Rohr, “Jesus and the Cross,” February 3-9, 2019, https://cac.org/jesus-and-the-cross-weekly-summary-2019-02-09/.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: 2008), 139, 141, 147, 150-151.

Image credit: Lamentation of Christ (detail), Andrea Mantegna, 1470-1474, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified and to realize that God the Father suffers with Jesus. This softens our hearts toward God and all of reality. We see that God’s heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer. —Richard Rohr
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