“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Synoptic Sayings (Mark, pt 3)

The Literary Setting of the Passion Predictions

The three Passion-predictions (see the discussion in Parts 1 and 2) provide a framework for the opening section of the second half of the Gospel narrative (the Judean/Jerusalem period). This opening section is centered on the journey of Jesus to Jesus to Jerusalem (covered by chapter 10 of Mark). The Passion-predictions are rather evenly divided within the section, marking the beginning, middle, and end. The second prediction marks the mid-point of the section, dividing it into two distinct parts. We may outline this as follows:

    • First Passion-Prediction (and the disciples’ reaction)—8:30-32
    • PART 1 (Preparation: Teaching the Disciples):
      • Teaching/sayings on Discipleship, with an eschatological theme (8:33-9:1)
      • The Transfiguration: Revelation to the Disciples (9:2-8)
      • Teaching the Disciples, with an eschatological theme (9:9-13)
      • Exorcism miracle episode, in the context of teaching the Disciples (9:14-29)
    • Second Passion-Prediction (and disciples’ reaction)—9:30-32
    • PART 2 (The Journey to Jerusalem):
      • Teaching his disciples: theme of ‘entering the Kingdom of God’ (9:33-50)
      • Teaching the crowds: focus on a discussion with Pharisees on a point of Law (10:1-12)
      • Teaching his disciples: theme of ‘entering the Kingdom of God’ (10:13-31)
    • Third Passion-Prediction (and disciples’ reaction)—10:32-34

The first part of this section centers on Jesus’ teaching his close disciples, in a manner that we may say is in preparation for the journey to Jerusalem. The Transfiguration episode effectively brings his Galilean ministry period to a close, and marks an end to his primary Messianic role during this period—as an Anointed Prophet, fulfilling the type-patterns of Moses and Elijah. Following this episode, Jesus once again alludes to his coming suffering and death (9:9-13). All of the teaching in this section has a strong eschatological emphasis, indicating quite clearly that his death and resurrection also has a profound eschatological significance (something many Christians today are unable or unwilling to recognize).

At verse 30, the narrative transitions into the second Passion-prediction, with an echo of Jesus’ earlier prohibition on revealing his identity as the Messiah (8:30):

“And from that (place), going out, they traveled along through the Galîl, and he did not wish that anyone should know (it)…”

Here, however, the sense of prohibition is rather different. Jesus simply wishes to avoid the crowds, keeping his presence hidden from the surrounding populace while he travels (south) through Galilee. The reason for avoiding any crowds is made clear in the opening words of verse 31:

“…for he taught his learners [i.e. disciples]”

Again, this echoes the context of the first Passion-prediction (“And he began to teach them…”). The teaching he was doing with his (close) disciples was of such importance, that Jesus wished to avoid attracting crowds around him that might distract from his work. And what is the subject, the focus of this teaching? It is the message of his coming suffering and death in Jerusalem. That the Passion-prediction fundamentally represents the substance of his teaching here is indicated by the wording of v. 31a:

“for he taught his learners [i.e. disciples] and said to them…”

What Jesus “said to them” is the Passion-prediction proper. As noted above, the statement of the prediction can be divided into two parts. The first predicts Jesus’ betrayal (an aspect of his Passion not specified in the first prediction), while the second restates the message of his coming death and resurrection.

The Other Son of Man Sayings

With this narrative framework in mind, we can examine the remaining “son of man” references in the Synoptic narrative, particularly those which are woven around the Passion-predictions that frame the narrative.

Mark 8:38

The first saying to be considered occurs in the first block of teaching (8:33-9:1) in the First Part (see the outline above). This block of material can be summarized as: Teaching/sayings on Discipleship, with an eschatological theme. There are at least three distinct traditions that comprise this unit: (i) verse 34b, (ii) verses 35-37, and (iii) verse 38. The last of these gives to the section a decided eschatological emphasis:

“For whoever would be ashamed over me and my words, in this adulterous and sinful genea/, the son of man also will be ashamed over him, when he should come in the splendor of his Father, (along) with the holy Messengers.”

It is understandable why some commentators have suggested that, originally in this saying (as well as several others), the “Son of man” was a heavenly being (cf. Dan 7:13-14) separate and distinct from Jesus himself. And, indeed, this saying is rather problematic (as an authentic saying by Jesus) if “son of man” is intended as a self-reference. Early Christians would have had no difficulty in understanding such a saying, in hindsight, as referring to the impending future return to earth of the exalted Christ. However, this point of reference would, it seems, have made little sense to Jesus’ disciples during the time of his ministry indicated by the position of this saying in the Gospel narrative.

The theory that Jesus was referring to someone else by the expression “the son of man” is undercut by the parallel saying in Matt 10:32-33:

“(So) then, everyone who will give account as one* with me in front of men, I also will give account as one with him in front of my Father th(at is) in [the] heavens.”
* The verb o(mologe/w, rendered more conventionally, agree with, acknowledge, affirm, confess (i.e., in agreement with others).

This saying is part of the “Q” material shared with Luke; the Lukan version (12:8-9), however, appears to conflate the “Q” and Markan versions, even though Luke also preserves the Synoptic/Markan saying separately (in 9:26). Verse 8 represents the “Q” version:

“Every one who would give account as one with me in front of men, also the son of man will give account as one with him in front of the Messengers of God”

A strong argument can be made that the Markan and “Q” sayings represent variations of a single tradition—and that argument becomes stronger if the Lukan formulation of the “Q” saying, using the expression “the son of man”, is the more original form. The parallelism of “me” / “son of man” suggests that the expression, again, is being used principally, if not exclusively, by Jesus as a self-reference. The Matthean version of the “Q” saying would tend to confirm this point.

What of the apparent inconcinnity (incongruity) of Jesus referring to his future coming in this way, at this point in the Gospel narrative? The problem may be resolved, to some extent, if Jesus was originally referring, not to a future return, but to his exaltation, after his death and resurrection. In his exalted position, he would be able to speak, before God the Father, regarding those who claimed to be his disciples. If they felt shame over him, or refused to acknowledge him publicly (“before men”), then he, too, would feel shame over them, and refuse to acknowledge them publicly (before God and the heavenly beings) as his disciples. A heavenly Judgment-scene is certainly intended.

There are additional such eschatological “son of man” references in Matthew and Luke (from the “Q” tradition, and otherwise), but this is the only one in the Synoptic/Markan narrative (apart from the key references in 13:26 and 14:62).

Mark 9:9, 12

There are two further “son of man” references in 9:9-13, a section with a similar emphasis as 8:33-9:1—viz., Jesus teaching the Disciples, with an eschatological theme (9:9-13). This unit follows immediately after the Transfiguration scene (9:2-8). The narrator indicates that Jesus warned his disciples not to reveal anything of what they had seen (v. 9), even as he did after Peter’s confession (8:30); this implies that the Transfiguration was a manifestation of Jesus’ Messianic identity (spec. a Messianic Prophet, fulfilling the type-figures of Elijah and Moses). The statement in verse 9 essentially repeats and summarizes the Passion-prediction of 8:31. Again, Jesus’ impending suffering and death (as “son of man”) is in marked contrast to the Messianic glory which was revealed about him in the Transfiguration.

The second “son of man” reference, in verse 12, is perhaps the closest example we have, in the Synoptic narrative, of the expression being used specifically as a reference to the Messiah. It occurs in the context of an eschatological question posed by the disciples, regarding the appearance of “Elijah” prior to the end of the Age: “(Why is it) that the writers say that ‘it is necessary (for) ‘Eliyyah to come first’?” (v. 11). Almost certainly, the tradition derived from Malachi 4:5-6, in the eschatological context of 3:1ff and 4:1ff, is in view. On this end-time figure of ‘Elijah’, as a Messianic Prophet, see Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. In the Transfiguration scene, and elsewhere in the early Gospel Tradition, Jesus is identified as this figure; and, yet, there is another line of early Christian tradition that clearly identifies John the Baptist as the ‘Elijah to come’. The Synoptic Gospels attest to both lines of tradition, with the identification of John as ‘Elijah’ being somewhat more prominent (cf. the allusion in v. 13).

More significance for our study here is the formulation of the “son of man” saying in verse 12. Jesus responds to the disciples, as he often does, by redirecting their question. Without denying the traditional eschatological belief expressed by their question, he positions it in a different way:

“‘Eliyyah, (hav)ing come first, will (indeed) set down all (thing)s from (what they were before) [i.e. restore them], and (yet) how is it (then) written about the son of man, that he should suffer many (thing)s and be made out as nothing?”

The expression “the son of man”, in the phrase “written about the son of man”, seems to be more or less equivalent to “the Anointed (one)” (i.e., the Messiah). However, the apparent equivalence may be misleading. Jesus’ wording may simply assume, as his disciples now realize, that he is the Messiah—the Divine Messenger of the end-time, who will usher in the Kingdom of God. The saying can be understood quite well if “the son of man” is, again, primarily regarded as a self-reference by Jesus; to paraphrase— “how is it then written about me, as the Messiah, that I should suffer many things…?”

In any case, as with the Passion predictions, it is Jesus’ human suffering that is being emphasized, in association with the expression “son of man”. He continues to teach his disciples, preparing them for the suffering that he is to endure in Jerusalem.

Mark 10:45

The same emphasis can be found in the “son of man” saying in Mark 10:45, occurring at the conclusion of an episode (vv. 35-45) set toward the end of the journey to Jerusalem (and after the third Passion-prediction [vv. 33-34]). Jesus’ teaching in verses 42-45, which may originally have circulated as separate sayings, stresses the need for humility and self-sacrifice among his disciples. They are to follow his own example, in this regard. Here the use of “the son of man” in verse 45 clearly functions as a self-reference:

“For even the son of man did not come to be served, but (rather) to serve, and to give himself as (the means of) loosing (from bondage), in exchange for many.”

In the narrative context, this saying certainly alludes, again, to Jesus’ impending suffering (and death) in Jerusalem. The phrase “to give himself…in exchange for many” indicates an act of self-sacrifice, as we also see in the wording of Jesus at the Last Supper (14:24 par). It is the first time in the Gospel narrative that Jesus’ death is described in salvific terms—referred to as a lu/tron, that is, the means of loosing (i.e., freeing, vb lu/w) someone from bondage. Jesus gives himself, sacrificially, “in exchange” for many others, in order to set them free.

Mark 14:21, 41

Finally, though they occur at a later point in the narrative—in the heart of the Passion narrative—the “son of man” references in Mark 14:21 and 41 obviously serve, for Jesus, as a self-reference, but one that is closely associated with his suffering and death. In a sense, these two references serve to frame the narrative of Jesus’ suffering (passion) prior to his arrest. The betrayal of Jesus, alluded to (by the verb paradi/dwmi) in the second and third Passion predictions, is the focus here, emphasized most dramatically in verse 21:

“(On the one hand, it is) that the son of man goes under just as it has been written about him; and (yet,) for that man, through whom the son of man is given along [paradi/dotai], (it would be) fine for him, that man, if he had not come to be (born)!”

As in 9:12 (see above), Jesus’ suffering is described as something foretold (prophesied) in the Scriptures. Following his agony in Gethsemane (vv. 32-41), the time of his betrayal finally comes, the moment that sets in motion the process leading to his death. The wording Jesus used to announce this, in verse 41, indicates that it is a moment of eschatological significance:

“It holds off (no longer)—the hour has come! See, the son of man is given into the hands of sinful (men)!”

This climactic declaration brings to fulfillment the “son of man” statements by Jesus dealing with the idea of his suffering (and death) as a “son of man”. As I have discussed, this usage likely alludes to the poetic tradition whereby the expression connotes the weakness and mortality of the human condition. At the same time, Jesus clearly is using it as a self reference: “this son man” —namely, himself.

In the fourth (and last) part of this article on the Synoptic (Markan) sayings, we will look at a seemingly quite different context for the expression “the son of man” —namely, the sayings in 13:26 and 14:62 par, with their reference to the exalted/heavenly figure of Daniel 7:13-14.

“Who Is This Son of Man…?”: Synoptic Sayings (Mark, pt 2)

Mark 8:31 / 9:31 / 10:33, continued
The First Passion-Prediction: Mk 8:31

“And he began to teach them that ‘It is necessary (for) the son of man to suffer many (thing)s, and to be removed from examination [i.e. rejected] under the Elders and the Chief Sacred-officials and the Writers [i.e. Scribes], and to be killed off, and (then), after three days, to stand up (again).”

The principal action that will take place is indicated by the verbal infinitive paqei=n (“to suffer“)—that is, there will be considerable suffering for Jesus in Jerusalem. The extent (and severity) of this suffering is suggested by the substantive adjective polla/ (“many [thing]s”). This is informative for an understanding of the expression “the son of man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou), as it is used here.

On the surface, this prediction of suffering is completely at odds with Peter’s confession identifying Jesus as the “Anointed One” (v. 29), especially if that title was referring to the royal Messiah of the Davidic Ruler figure-type (cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). It was certainly not thought that the Davidic Messiah would experience intense suffering when he arrived in Jerusalem; rather, he was expected to subdue the nations and establish a new (Messianic) kingdom on earth, centered at Jerusalem. The context in Luke 17:20-21 and 19:11ff suggests that at some of Jesus’ followers and observers expected the establishment of this Messianic kingdom when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. The entire Triumphal Entry scene reflects this same expectation (cf. the recent notes on this scene, in this context of the Synoptic narrative).

With regard to the Passion-prediction, there may be an intentional distinction being made (by Jesus) between the title “Anointed (One)” and “Son of Man”. Peter’s confession emphasizes Jesus’ identity as the Davidic Messiah (who was to appear in victory and glory), while the Passion-prediction, emphasizing Jesus’ impending suffering, focuses on his identity as “Son of Man”.

There can be no doubt that “son of man” in the Passion-prediction is a self-reference by Jesus (on the basis for this usage of the expression, see the Introduction, and Part 1). In other words, for Jesus to say “it is necessary for the son of man to suffer”, this is much as if he had said “it is necessary for me to suffer” (cf. the Matthean version of the prediction mentioned below, and discussed briefly in Part 1). At the same time, “Son of Man” here also functions as a kind of title, especially insofar as the Passion-prediction represents a response to Peter’s confession identifying Jesus as the “Anointed One” (Messiah). While Jesus affirms Peter’s confession, he also, at the same time, points the disciples in a different direction, emphasizing his suffering as the “Son of Man” (see the Summary section below).

Even as there was no expectation of a “suffering Messiah” in Judaism at this time (for more on this, cf. my article in the series “Yeshua the Messiah”), so also there is no evidence for the idea of a “suffering Son of Man”. Conceivably, the idea could have developed from reflection on the famous ‘Suffering Servant’ passage in Isa 52:13-53:12, which early Christians did apply to Jesus’ suffering and death (Lk 22:37; Acts 3:13; 8:32-33, etc); but it hard to see how this passage would have related to the specific title “Son of Man”, prior to its application to Jesus.

In my view, a better explanation for Jesus’ usage here in the Passion-prediction involves the fundamental significance of the expression (cf. references in the Introduction)—as relating to the human condition, especially in its limitation, weakness, and mortality. By applying the expression “son of man” to himself in the context of his Passion, Jesus is identifying with the human condition, particularly with regard to the experience of weakness, suffering and death. For an objective statement to this same effect, cf. the wording in the famous Christ-hymn in Philippians (2:6-11).

The use of the modal verbal form dei= (“it is necessary”) to introduce this announcement of the Son of Man’s suffering is also significant. It is relatively rare in the core Synoptic tradition, occurring only several times in the words of Jesus. The verb is more frequent in Luke, including several important instances in the Passion and Resurrection narratives, where the necessity of Jesus’ suffering is predicated upon the fact that it was prophesied in the Scriptures (22:37; 24:7, 44). This idea, however, was scarcely a Lukan invention; it reflects early Christian belief, and is stated equally clearly (by Jesus) in the Matthean Passion narrative (26:54). Indeed, it seems likely that the force of dei= in the Passion-prediction relates to the same prophetic mandate, and that this is how Jesus intended it to be understood.

As I have noted, the form of the Passion-prediction is relatively fixed within the Gospel Tradition. There are some notable differences, however. Matthew’s version (16:21), in its initial wording, reads:

“…that it is necessary (for) him to go away into Yerushalaim and to suffer many (thing)s”

The italicized portion marks the variation from the (shorter) Markan version. Since the prediction is couched within the Synoptic narration, the Gospel writer has a bit more freedom to add explanatory detail, such as the phrase “go away into Jerusalem”, which also serves to emphasize the location where these events will take place (and the goal of the coming journey). Also noteworthy is the way that the author essentially explains the title/expression “Son of Man” as a self-reference by Jesus. Luke’s version (9:22) here, by contrast, is identical to Mark.

The Second Passion-Prediction: Mk 9:31

The second prediction begins as the first did, with a warning by Jesus (8:30), not to tell anyone about his Messianic identity. In this instance (9:30), he warns his disciples not to inform anyone about his travels. The reason, indicated by the opening words of v. 31, is that he wanted privacy so that he could teach his disciples about what was to come in Jerusalem. This provides the setting for the second Passion-prediction:

“For he was teaching his learners [i.e. disciples], and said to them that ‘The son of man is (about to be) given along into (the) hands of men, and they will kill him off, and, (hav)ing been killed off, after three days, he will stand up (again).'” (9:31)

This second prediction has a simpler and shorter form, omitting mention (except in an indirect way) of the suffering the “son of man” will experience in Jerusalem. Here, the focus is not on suffering, but on process of death and resurrection. The process has three connected components:

    • “he will be given along into the hands of men” —alluding to his betrayal, arrest, and interrogation/trial
    • “they will kill him off” —his death at the “hands of men”
    • “he will stand up (again)” —his resurrection

The last two components are most closely connected, as indicated by the temporal/relational clause between them: “and, (hav)ing been killed off…”. Matthew’s version (17:22-23) differs only slightly in wording, while the Lukan version (9:44) is abbreviated, including only the first statement (“the son of man is about to be given along into [the] hands of men”), along with a solemn introduction by Jesus (“You must set these words into your ears…”).

The Third Passion-Prediction: Mk 10:33f

The third prediction is the longest, and appears to be a conflation of the first two, but with other expanded detail as well. In the context of the narrative, it has a climactic position, marking Jesus’ impending approach to Jerusalem:

“See, we step up (soon) to Yerushalaim, and the son of man will be given along to the Chief Sacred-officials and the Writers, and they will judge against him to death, and (then) will give him along to the nations, and they will toy with him and spit on him, and they will scourge him and kill him off, and (then), after three days, he will stand up (again).” (10:33-34)

The expansions give more detail to both the suffering the “son of man” will experience, and the process of his being put to death. Thus, suffering and death are the main points of emphasis. The Matthean (20:17-19) and Lukan (18:31-33) versions generally follow the Markan, but in a simpler and more streamlined form. Luke notably frames the saying in terms of Jesus’ suffering (and death) as a fulfillment of Scripture (v. 31). This introduces a theme that will play an important role in the narrative of Luke-Acts: the need, as part of the early Christian mission, to offer Scriptural support for the problematic idea that the Messiah (identified as Jesus) would suffer and die.

Summary

Scholars have debated whether the three Synoptic Passion-predictions should be regarded as three separate traditions, or variations of a single tradition. The similarity in formulation would tend to argue in favor of a single underlying tradition, which could be transmitted or presented in various forms. This variation may reflect Markan literary handling of the tradition, or it may pre-date the Gospel writer. One might be inclined to explain the second prediction as a simpler or abbreviated form of the first, and the third as a more expansive version (including more detail from the wider Passion tradition).

In any case, the use of the expression “the son of man” would appear to be the same in all three sayings. It is probably best to focus on the first saying, as I have done above, in the context of the Synoptic tradition. If the connection between the first saying and Peter’s confession (8:29f) is original, then it could indicate that the expression “the son of man” connotes something significant, beyond its use as a self-reference by Jesus (see above).

If so, what is this significance? The idea that Jesus, as the Messiah, would suffer and be put to death in Jerusalem seems to have shocked and scandalized the disciples—as represented in the tradition by Peter’s response (and rebuke) to Jesus (8:32 par [omitted by Luke]). The teaching Jesus gives in v. 31, following as it does Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, may be intended as a point of contrast (and warning). He would not arrive in Jerusalem in glory, victoriously establishing the kingdom of God on earth—at least, not in a way that would conform to popular expectations. Instead, as a “son of man”, he would experience suffering and death.

If the expression connotes anything specific in these sayings, it surely involves an allusion to the poetic tradition, by which the parallel “man / son of man” indicates the weakness and mortality of the human condition (cf. again the references in the Introduction). By calling himself “the son of man”, Jesus is identifying himself with this aspect of the human condition.

At the same time, one could argue that the expression was primarily intended by Jesus as a self-reference, and that, on this basis, the expression came to be preserved in the Greek text of the Passion prediction(s). The definiteness of the articular expression in Greek (or the determinate state in Aramaic, av*n`a&-rB^) could carry much the same meaning (and emphasis) as in the earlier sayings of 2:10 and 28 (discussed in Part 1). Jesus would then be referring to himself as “this son of man” —i.e., as for myself, as this son of man… .

The centrality of the Passion-predictions, among of the Synoptic “son of man” sayings, is significant in this regard. For they emphasize both the suffering of Jesus, and his subsequent exaltation. The primary focus is on Jesus’ suffering, yet the promise of exaltation (in the resurrection) is also present. Still, the association of the expression “son of man” with this latter aspect will not come clearly into view until the climactic sayings, in 13:26 and 14:62 par.

In Part 3 of this article, we will give consideration to  the Passion predictions as they govern the Synoptic (Markan) narrative (in chaps. 9-10), while also examining the other “son of man” sayings that occur in the narrative (prior to 14:62).

Saturday Series: John 1:29 (continued)

John 1:29, continued

Today, we continue with our previous study from last week, on John 1:29, the first sin-reference in the Gospel of John. It was mentioned that the text of this verse is secure, and yet a precise interpretation has proven somewhat difficult for commentators. In this study, I wish to focus on two areas of interpretation: (1) the expression “the lamb of God”, and (2) the force of the verb aírœ. It will be necessary to adopt an historical-critical (and intertextual) approach to these topics, looking at the historical background to the language used by the Gospel writer (and John the Baptist as speaker).

“Lamb of God”

Commentators have struggled to determine precisely the origins and significance of the expression “the lamb of God” (ho amnós tou Theoú), which occurs only here (being repeated in verse 36) in the Scriptures. A number of sources of influence have been proposed and discussed, with commentators differing on their relative plausibility. There has, however, come to be something of an emerging consensus that the two main sources are: (a) the figure of the Passover lamb, and (b) the reference to the Servant-figure in the Isa 52:13-53:12 Servant Song as a lamb (53:7). The relatively recent article by Jesper Tang Nielsen, “The Lamb of God: The Cognitive Structure of a Johannine Metaphor” (published in Imagery in the Gospel of John: Terms, Forms, Themes, and Theology of Johannine Figurative Language, eds. Jörg Frey, Jan G. van der Watt, and Ruben Zimmermann, WUNT 200 [Mohr Siebeck: 2006], pp. 217-56) discusses the conceptual blending of these two specific background-aspects of the expression (I refer to this study below as “Nielsen”).

1. The Passover lamb

Some commentators have argued that the Isaiah 53:7 reference is primary for the expression “the lamb of God” in Jn 1:29. I would strongly disagree; in my view, the Passover lamb represents the principal point of reference. This seems to be quite clear, based on two points of evidence. First, we have the specific identification of Jesus with the Passover lamb in 19:14, 36, where the lamb-identification is made in the context of Jesus’ death—being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. Second, the foreshadowing of this moment in the reference to the ‘bronze serpent’ tradition (Numbers 21:9) in 3:14-15 strongly suggests the parallel of the lamb, once it has been ‘lifted up’, giving life-saving healing to all those who look at (i.e., believe in) it.

And yet, as many commentators have noted, there is no indication, either in the Old Testament or in later Jewish tradition, of a direct connection between the Passover lamb and sin. In particular, there is no evidence that the Passover lamb (or the ritual as a whole) was ever thought to take away sin (see on the verb aírœ below). I have discussed the Passover tradition in several recent articles, and will here only mention three aspects of its significance that seem relevant to the sin-association in Jn 1:29:

    • The apotropaic function of the Passover lamb’s blood in the original Exodus-tradition (Exod 12, esp. vv. 7, 13, 22-23), as protection against death.
    • The idea that those participating in the ritual must purify themselves in preparation—represented primarily through the symbolism of the leaven that is removed (see vv. 14-20, and compare Paul’s interpretation in 1 Cor 5:7); note also the purity regulations in Numbers 9.
    • The symbolism of the historical context of the Passover—the Exodus as freedom from bondage (in Egypt).

One can see how each of these aspects could be related to the removal of sin (and its effects); yet were any of these particularly in view for the Gospel writer, or did they specifically influence the sin-association in Jn 1:29? Philo of Alexandria, in his allegorical interpretation of the Passover tradition, blends together the second and third aspects in a unique way. In his work On the Special Laws, in the section on the Passover (2.145-149), the festival is interpreted as figuratively representing the purification of the soul. He utilizes the wordplay between the Hebrew word for the festival, pesaµ (transliterated in Greek as páscha), explained as deriving from the root psµ I (“pass over”), and the Greek verb páschœ (“suffer”, i.e., being affected, specifically by the passions), so as to explain the Passover as symbolizing the “passing over” of the soul, away from the body and its passions (2.147).

An even closer parallel can perhaps be found in Josephus’ brief discussion of Passover in Antiquities 2.311-14 (see Nielsen, p. 238). Josephus shifts the meaning of the lamb’s blood somewhat. Instead of its apotropaic function (see above), with the blood being applied to the house of the Israelite family (thus protecting the people inside), a spiritualizing ethical interpretation is given, whereby the blood actually purifies (vb hagnízœ) the individual who faithfully observes the ritual. This concept of the purification of the devout/faithful Israelite by the lamb’s blood is not that far removed from the Christian idea of Jesus’ blood cleansing the believer from sin (1 John 1:7).

Already in the Exodus tradition (Exod 12:27), the Passover (lamb) is referred to as a sacrificial offering (ze»aµ)—that is, an animal that is ritually slain as an offering (to God). In Israelite and Jewish tradition, the Passover would increasingly be recognized as a kind of sacrifice. It clearly is not an offering for sin; it has much more in common with the šelem offering (Leviticus 3), in which the worshiper eats the meat of the animal as part of a ritual meal. Even so, the traditional conception of the Passover as a sacrifice may well have led early Christians to connect it with other aspects of the sacrificial offerings, such as the offerings for sin—including the expiatory offerings of the Day of Atonement festival (Leviticus 16), which involved the ritual/symbolic removal of sin. That early Christians did, in fact, associate the Day of Atonement offerings with the person of Jesus (and his sacrificial death) is clear from Hebrews 8-10. It would not be unreasonable for an early Christian to blend this sin offering imagery together with the motif of Jesus as a Passover lamb that is slain, bringing life and salvation to those who believe.

2. The lamb in Isaiah 53:7

(I discuss Isa 52:13-53:12 at length in an earlier article and set of notes; see the note on 53:7)

The “Suffering Servant” figure in this famous Isaian Servant Song (52:13-53:12) is compared, in verse 7, to a lamb brought along to the slaughter. This is one of the very few Old Testament passages that could be cited by early Christians as prophesying the suffering and death of Jesus. As the repeated references in Luke-Acts make clear, it was vitally important for the early (Jewish) Christian missionaries to demonstrate (for their fellow Jews) that Jesus was the Messiah, even though his suffering and shameful/painful death made such an identification difficult. They sought to prove from the Scriptures that it was necessary for the Messiah to be put to death (see Lk 18:31ff; 24:25-26, 46; Acts 3:18; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28; 26:23), and Isa 53:7ff is one of the few passages that could reasonably be quoted in support of this.

Indeed, Isa 53:7-8 is specifically cited in Acts 8:32-33ff, applied to the suffering and death of Jesus. Since the lamb in John 1:29 also is connected with Jesus’ death (as the slain Passover lamb, see the discussion above), it would be natural for the lamb in Isa 53:7f to be similarly applied to Jesus by the Gospel writer.

In the Septuagint (LXX) of Isa 53:7, the Hebrew nouns ´eh and r¹µel (referring to a male and female sheep, respectively) are translated by the Greek nouns próbaton and amnós. The noun próbaton is a descriptive term that denotes a quadruped animal that “walks forward”, referring particularly to sheep or goats; amnós, the word used in Jn 1:29, properly designates a young sheep (lamb).

The LXX of Isa 53:7-8ff seems, in particular, to have influenced the Johannine use of the lamb-motif (see Nielsen, pp. 231-3). First, there is the idea of the Servant being “taken up” from the earth (v. 8), using the same verb (aírœ) as here in 1:29 (see below). Beyond this, in 52:13-15, and again at the end of the passage (53:10-12), there is an emphasis on the glorification of the Servant, tying his vicarious suffering/death to his exaltation. Of particular note is the occurrence of the noun dóxa and the related verb doxázœ (twice) in the LXX of 52:13-14, which is significant, given the importance of these words in relation to the “lifting up” of Jesus (death-exaltation) in the Gospel of John (12:23, 28; 13:31-32; 17:1, 4-5, 22, 24; see also 7:39; 12:16).

In Isa 53:10, the suffering of the Servant is specifically connected with the idea of a sin offering, helping to explain the sin-association that is notably absent from the background of the Passover lamb (as mentioned above). The vicarious nature of this offering is clear from verse 12, where it is stated that the Servant “lifted up” (vb n¹´¹° ac*n`) the sins of many people, bearing them himself, in a way that intercedes (vb p¹ga±) for the people (on their behalf) before God. In the LXX, this is expressed in a way that better fits the vicarious suffering of Jesus: “and he (himself) brought up [i.e. carried] the sins of many, and he was given over through [i.e. because of] their sins”.

The use of the noun amnós can serve as further evidence that Isa 53:7 is in view here in Jn 1:29, since different nouns (ar¢¡n, próbaton) are used in the LXX for the Passover lamb. As I have noted, it seems likely that the Passover lamb is the main point of reference in Jn 1:29, but that the nuances of meaning from Isa 53:7ff have also shaped the “lamb of God” concept. This Johannine lamb-tradition continues in the book of Revelation, where the noun arníon (diminutive of ar¢¡n) is used for Jesus as the lamb that was slain (and now has an exalted status in heaven). The noun amnós, by contrast, is rather rare in the New Testament; apart from here in Jn 1:29 (and 36), it occurs only in Acts 8:32 (citing Isa 53:7, see above), and in 1 Peter 1:19, where the Passover lamb (with its unblemished character) may also be in view.

The noun amnós is used in Exod 29:38-41 for the lamb that is presented as a twice-daily burnt offering, while próbaton is used in Leviticus for the various sacrificial offerings (sin offering, 5:6ff, etc). Thus there is some precedence in the tradition for understanding an amnós-lamb as a sacrificial offering; and, as mentioned above, it would have been natural for Christians to extend this association, when applied to the person of Christ, to include offerings for sin as well.

The use of the verb aírœ

John 1:29 uses the verb aírœ (ai&rw), which has the basic meaning “take up”. It is a common verb, used without any special meaning in many of the Gospel references (2:16; 5:8-12; 8:59, etc). There are two possible ways of understanding its meaning here: (a) take away (i.e. remove), or (b) the act of lifting up (i.e., bear/carry). The verb is used both ways in the Gospel, equally for lifting/carrying (5:8-12) and removing (e.g., 11:39, 41). What is the principal emphasis here? Does Jesus, as the “lamb of God”, remove sin, or does he bear/carry it?

If, as I discuss above, Isa 53:7ff is an important influence on Jn 1:29, then we might assume the latter. In verse 12, it is clearly stated that the Servant, in his suffering, “lifted up” (i.e., carried) the sins of many. In Hebrew, the verb n¹´¹° is used, which certainly could be translated in Greek by the verb aírœ, even though in the LXX of v. 12 it is the more concrete verb anaphérœ (“bring up”) that is used, denoting an act of lifting/bearing/carrying. The verb aírœ does occur in LXX Isa 53:8, but in reference to the death of the Servant—i.e., his being “taken up/away” from the earth. However, since the death of Jesus is also in view in Jn 1:29 (see the discussion above), and as the departure of the Son (Jesus) from the earth (back to God the Father) is a key Johannine theme, Isa 53:8 could very well be influencing the use of aírœ here (compare the use of aírœ in a similar Passion context, 19:15; 20:13ff; see also 16:22; 17:15).

At the same time, the idea of the removal of sin is also found throughout the Johannine writings, most notably in 1 John 1:7, where it is stated that the blood of Jesus (i.e., through his death as the slain ‘lamb’) cleanses the believer from sin. Perhaps the strongest argument for this meaning of aírœ here in Jn 1:29 comes from 1 John 3:5, where it is indicated the purpose of Jesus’ appearance on earth was to “take away” sin (“…that he might take away [ár¢] sin”).

The most significant (and relevant) use of aírœ elsewhere in the Gospel occurs in the Shepherd-discourse of chapter 10. The context of Jesus’ death, as a self-sacrifice, is clearly indicated:

“Through this, the Father loves me, (in) that [i.e. because] I set (down) my soul [i.e. lay down my life], (so) that I might take it (up) again. No one takes [aírei] it away from me, but (rather) I set it (down) from myself; I hold (the) authority to set it (down), and I (also) hold (the) authority to take it (up) again—this (is) the charge (laid) on (me) to complete (that) I received (from) alongside my Father.” (10:17-18)

The verb aírœ is used in the sense of Jesus’ life being “taken away”; however, when he speaks of his actual death, as a self-sacrifice, he uses the verb pair “set/lay (down)” (títh¢mi) and “take (up)” (lambánœ). No one “takes away” his life; rather, he himself sets it down (dies) and takes it back up again (returning to life). This use of aírœ , paired with the Johannine references in 1 Jn 1:7; 3:5, seems to confirm that the principal aspect of meaning for aírœ in 1:29 is the removal (“taking away”) of sin.

In next week’s study, some concluding comments and observations on 1:29 will be made, along with a brief examination of the context of the second sin-reference in the Gospel (5:14).

May 15: John 16:11

John 16:11

In verse 11, we have the third (and final) item of the triad in the Paraclete-saying of v. 8:

“that (one) will show the world (to be wrong)…about judgment [kri/si$]”

In the previous notes on v. 9 and 10, two key points were established: (1) the Spirit will show the world to be wrong in its understanding (of sin and righteousness), and that (2) the true nature of sin and righteousness is to be understood in Christological terms—that is, in relation to Jesus’ identity as the Son sent (from heaven) by God the Father. The same two points apply to the final statement regarding judgment (kri/si$).

The noun kri/si$ fundamentally refers to a separation, often in the sense of discerning or making a decision about something. It is typically translated “judgment”, either in this general sense, or within the specific legal-judicial context of a decision rendered in a court of law (by a judge). For the most part, in the Gospel of John, as throughout the New Testament, kri/si$ specifically refers to the coming end-time (eschatological) Judgment, when God will judge the world, punishing humankind for its wickedness.

The noun occurs 11 times in the Gospel (out of 47 NT occurrences), and once in 1 John (4:17); the related verb (kri/nw) occurs 19 times in the Gospel, but not in the Letters. Occasionally, the more general sense of judgment is intended (cf. 7:24), or kri/si$/kri/nw is used in an ordinary legal-judicial context (7:51; 18:31); however, as noted above, primarily the reference is to the coming end-time Judgment (see esp. 5:29-30; 12:31, 48; 1 Jn 4:17).

Even though the eschatological context is primary, this is presented in a very distinctive way in the Gospel Discourses. At several points, we find signs of what is called “realized” eschatology—that is, the idea that end-time events, such as the resurrection and the Last Judgment, are understood as having, in a sense, already occurred, being realized in the present. This does not mean that the Gospel writer (or Jesus as the speaker) denies a future fulfillment, but only affirms that it is also fulfilled in the present. This is seen most clearly in the chapter 5 Discourse, where the resurrection is defined, not simply as a future event, but as realized in the present, through the presence of the Son of God (Jesus)—vv. 25ff; cp. 11:25-26. In terms of salvation from the coming Judgment, this is realized for believers (in the present), through their/our trust in Jesus:

“the (one) hearing my word, and trusting in the (One hav)ing sent me, holds (the) life of the ages [i.e. eternal life], and does not come into judgment, but has stepped over, out of death, (and) into life.” (5:24)

If believers are saved from judgment in the present, through trust, then unbelievers correspondingly come under God’s judgment, having the judgment (already) passed against them (in the present), through their lack of trust. The key passage alluding to this is 3:19-21; cf. also 9:41; 15:22-24. In the wider Gospel tradition, the end-time period of distress, seen as the beginnings of the Judgment, commences with the suffering and death of Jesus (see, e.g., Mark 14:38-41 par, and the context of the “Eschatological Discourse” [chap. 13 par]). The Johannine tradition evinces the same basic eschatological view, and this is confirmed by Jesus’ declaration in 12:31, and is strongly implied throughout the Last Discourse.

The explanation of the Paraclete-saying in v. 8 concludes with the words of Jesus in v. 11:

“…and about judgment, (in) that the Chief of this world has been judged”

The perfect tense of the verb kri/nw (ke/kritai, passive, “he has been judged”) indicates a past event, the effect of which continues in the present. The implication is that the “chief of this world” has already been judged, just as believers have already passed through [perfect form of the vb metabai/nw] the Judgment (5:24, cf. above).

The expression “the chief of this world” (o( a&rxwn tou= ko/smou tou=tou) occurred earlier the 12:31 declaration:

“Now is (the) judgment of this world, now the Chief of this world shall be cast out!”

The idea expressed is very close to that here in v. 11: “shall be cast out” (future tense) is parallel with “has been judged” (perfect tense). Essentially the same expression was used earlier in the Last Discourse, at the close of the first discourse (14:30f):

“Not much more shall I speak with you, for the Chief of the world comes, and he does not hold anything on me, but (this is so) that the world would know that I love the Father, and, just as He laid on me (a duty) to complete, so I do (it).”

This is a rather complicated way for Jesus to refer to his impending suffering (and death). The approach of the “Chief of the world” signifies the world’s role, under the dominion of its “Chief”, in putting Jesus to death. The point is strongly made that this does not mean that the world (or its Chief) has any power over Jesus, or has anything incriminating on him (deserving of death)—cf. Jesus’ words to Pilate in 19:11, and note the emphasis in 10:18. In his own way, Pilate is one of the world’s “chiefs”, though ultimately subservient to the dominion/control of its main Chief (the Devil). Jesus’ suffering and death will happen so that everyone (“the world,” in a more generic sense) will know of the love between Father and Son, and that the Son (Jesus) is simply fulfilling the duty and mission given to him by the Father.

In speaking of the “coming” of the world’s Chief, coinciding with the onset of Jesus’ Passion, one is reminded of the Synoptic Garden scene, when Jesus announces to his close disciples that “the hour (has) come [h@lqen h( w%ra]” (Mark 14:41 par; cp. Jn 12:23, 27 in connection with v. 31). In the Lukan version (22:53), this declaration is given more vivid and personal form:

“…but this is your hour, and the authority [e)cousi/a] of darkness”

In many ways, this language approaches the Johannine theme of the world’s opposition to Jesus; the plural “you” essentially refers to those people, hostile to Jesus, who belong to the current world-order (ko/smo$) of darkness and evil. Functionally, they are servants of the Devil, the “Chief” of the world.

According to the world’s view of things, Jesus was judged and punished by the world’s authority; yet this view of judgment (kri/si$) is decidedly wrong. Jesus’ suffering and death actually marks the beginning of his exaltation—of his being “lifted up” (as the Son of God) in glory. While it might appear as though Jesus was judged, it was actually the world (and its Chief) that underwent judgment. This is the true nature of judgment that the Spirit will bring to light, exposing the false understanding of the world. Jesus himself declared the true situation at the close of the Last Discourse (16:33):

“…in the world you have distress, but you must take courage, (for) I have been victorious (over) the world!”

Again a perfect tense form (neni/khka, “I have been victorious”) shows how the future (eschatological) event of the Judgment is realized in the present. That Jesus’ victory over the world includes the “Chief of the world” —something already alluded to in 12:31—is confirmed by the author of 1 John:

“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] the Son of God was made to shine forth [i.e. appear on earth], that he should dissolve [i.e. destroy] the works of the {Devil}.” (3:8)

The mission of the Son on earth, culminating in his death, had the purpose (and effect) of destroying the ‘works’ (implying dominion/control) of the Devil. This is another way of stating that, with the death of Jesus, the “Chief of the world” has been judged.

Another way that the world is wrong about judgment relates to the future expectation of the end-time (Last) Judgment. The conventional religious view was that only at the end time, in the future (however immediate or far off), would God judge the world—judging human beings for their ethical and religious behavior. In two respects, the Gospel of John presents a very different perspective on the great Judgment: (1) the Judgment is effectively realized in the present, based on whether or not one trusts in Jesus (as the Son of God), and (2) people are judged ultimately, and principally, on their response to the witness regarding Jesus identity (as the Son). This ‘realized’ eschatological emphasis in the Johannine writings (esp. the Gospel) was discussed above, but it is worth mentioning again here. Point (2) has already been addressed in the prior notes (on v. 9 and 10), but, in this regard, the Christological emphasis of the Paraclete-saying cannot be overstated.

In the next daily note, our analysis of vv. 8-11 will be summarized, along with some exegetical comments on the following vv. 12-15.

The Passion Narrative: Episode 6 (Mk 15:21-41; Matt 27:32-56)

The Death of Jesus

Episode 6

The sixth and final episode of the Passion Narrative is the death (crucifixion) of Jesus. There is a core historical tradition which all four Gospels have inherited, including the following details:

    • The reference to the Aramaic name of the location of the crucifixion—gûlgalt¹° (Greek Golgoqa, Golgotha), “(Place of the) Skull”
    • Two others were crucified along with Jesus, one on either side
    • The inscription placed upon the cross, reading variously:
      “The King of the Jews” (Mk 15:26)
      “This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38)
      “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matt 27:37)
      “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews” (Jn 19:19)
    • The soldiers casting lots and dividing Jesus’ clothes
    • Jesus given sour wine to drink while on the cross
Mark 15:21-41; Matthew 27:32-56

The Synoptic version of this episode, as represented by Mark’s account, is divided simply into two halves:

    • Narrative introduction—the man (Simon) standing nearby (v. 21)
      —He follows Jesus, carrying the cross (cf. Mk 8:34 par)
    • The Crucifixion and Mocking of Jesus (vv. 22-32)
    • The Suffering and Death of Jesus (vv. 33-39)
    • Conclusion—the women (Mary and the others) standing nearby (vv. 40-41)
      —They are followers of Jesus (cp. Lk 8:2-3)

The symmetry of this account is quite apparent, the two scenes being framed by narrative descriptions involving the theme of discipleship (following and suffering with Jesus). The historical notice regarding the passerby Simon (v. 21) has all the marks of authenticity, and yet would appear to be contradicted by Jn 19:17 where Jesus carries his own cross to the place of execution. Let us examine each of the principal scenes, considering the differences in Matthew’s version, which otherwise follows Mark closely (as it does throughout the Passion Narrative).

1. The Crucifixion and Mocking of Jesus (Mk 15:22-32 par)
Time: 3rd to 6th hour

If we look at the events and traditional details as they are presented, it is possible again to divide them into two parts:

    • Details surrounding the Crucifixion (vv. 22-25)
      The King of the Jews [inscription on the cross]
      (v. 26)
    • The Mocking of Jesus on the cross (vv. 27-32)

The main detail in vv. 22-25 is the description of people (i.e. soldiers) dividing Jesus’ garments and casting lots for them (v. 24). While not specified by Mark, this is doubtless included as an indication of the fulfillment of prophecy (Psalm 22:18), a point made specific in Jn 19:24. The central element of the scene is the reference to the inscription on the cross (v. 26); Mark states it as follows:

“And the writing of the cause (for death) written upon (the sign above) was ‘The King of the Jews'”

As noted above, each of the Gospels records this same tradition, but the exact wording of the inscription differs in each case. Matthew specifically mentions that the inscription was over Jesus’ head on the cross, which may be parallel with his emphatic version of the inscription— “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (27:37). The official charge against Jesus, and the cause for his execution, involves the title (“King of the Jews”) featured in the earlier interrogation scene with Pilate (v. 2). It is a title more meaningful, in political terms, than the corresponding “Anointed One” (Messiah) used by the High Priest in the Sanhedrin scene (14:61), though in Jewish thought they both refer to the same fundamental Messianic idea (cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). This is confirmed in the mocking of Jesus which follows, paralleling the Sanhedrin interrogation scene:

    • Report of the Temple-saying—14:58 / 15:29f
    • “Are you the Anointed One…?” —14:61
      “Let the Anointed One, the ‘King of Israel’ step down…” —15:32

The challenge in v. 32 is made by the Chief Priests and Scribes (i.e. members of the Council), just as the question to Jesus in 14:61 was made by the Chief (High) Priest.

2. The Suffering and Death of Jesus (Mk 15:33-39 par) Time: 6th to 9th hour

Before proceeding to the main points in the second scene, it is worth considering the symmetry of this episode:

    • Darkness over the whole land (v. 33)
      • Jesus cries out with a great voice (v. 34)
        • Mocking: “See, he calls (for) Elijah” (v. 35)
        • Mocking: “Let us see if Elijah comes…” (v. 36)
      • Jesus releases a great voice [i.e. cry] (v. 37)
    • The curtain of the Temple is torn, from top to bottom (v. 38)

With this structure in mind, I will briefly examine each element of the scene.

a. The Darkness (v. 33)— “darkness came to be upon the whole land” (Matthew: “all the land”). This is an essential image of God’s judgment against the earth—against this particular land and its people. See Exodus 10:21-23 and the motif common in the Prophets—Jer 33:19-21; Amos 8:9-10; Zeph 1:15; Joel 2:2, 10, 31, etc. Often the reference is to the eschatological “Day of YHWH”, a day of judgment/darkness, which can be expressed in terms of the day becoming like night (see Deut 28:29, etc). In the extra-canonical Gospel of Peter 15, this motif is more explicit in the description of the crucifixion scene—i.e. darkness held Judea at mid-day.

b. Jesus’ loud cry (vv. 34, 37)—The first loud cry (lit. “great voice”) by Jesus is accompanied by a quotation from Psalm 22:1 [2]. Here the historical tradition in the Gospel has preserved the Aramaic (or Aramaic-Hebrew mix) of Jesus’ quotation. It is given a reasonably literal translation in Greek: “My God, my God, unto what [i.e. for what purpose, why] have you left me down (behind) [i.e. forsaken me]?” Many attempts have been made to interpret Jesus’ words, often reading in theological and Christological aspects which are essentially foreign to the Gospel tradition here. The natural explanation is that Jesus, in his suffering, pain and distress, is identifying with the sentiment and feeling expressed by the Psalmist. Indeed, the entire Crucifixion scene alludes to Psalm 22—not only the cry echoing verse 1, but also the mocking taunts of the onlookers (vv. 7-8), the dividing of the garments (v. 18), and the overall crucifixion setting (v. 16).

The words of the cry, with the sentiment expressed, is similar to Jesus’ prayer in the earlier Gethsemane scene (Mk 14:34-36ff par). The second loud cry at the moment of his death echoes this first cry, as he breathes out his last breath. It is a simple and powerful evocation of a human being experiencing the moment of death in the midst of extreme pain and suffering. It is hard to imagine a more direct testimony to Jesus’ own identification with the human condition (see Hebrews 5:5-8ff).

c. The association with Elijah (vv. 35-36)—In the context of the narrative, the historical tradition involves wordplay between the underlying Aramaic °E~l¹hî (“My God”) and °E~lîy¹hû (“Elijah”). Critical scholars have found certain historical and linguistic difficulties with this, but there can be no doubt that the Gospel tradition draws upon it for the important Messianic association with Elijah that is reflected throughout the early tradition. It is related to the identity both of John the Baptist and Jesus. The principal Scriptural reference underlying the Messianic tradition is Malachi 4:5 [3:23], a passage which establishes the connection between Elijah and the coming Judgment. The mocking by the crowd, parallel to that in the prior scene (see above), could indicate that Jesus was recognized by some as a Messianic Prophet in the manner of Elijah. The figure of Elijah was especially associated with the working of miracles, including the raising of the dead, and the crowd’s taunt calls on Jesus to work a miracles and to “come down” from the cross. For more on Elijah, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

d. The Temple curtain (v. 37)—The rending of the Temple curtain (katapétasma), like the darkness, symbolizes the Judgment by God—only from a religious standpoint, as it involves the sacred Place (the Temple) in Jerusalem. Probably this refers to the curtain at the entrance to the innermost shrine (“Holy of Holies”), see Hebrews 6:19; 9:3; 10:20. The motif of Judgment would seem to be confirmed by the structural parallel with the darkness (cf. the outline above)—darkness over the whole land, the curtain torn from top to bottom. The passive form of the verb (eschísthe, “was split”) should be understood as a divine passive, with God as the implied actor. For Old Testament and Jewish parallels, cf. the departure of YHWH’s glory from the Temple in Ezekiel 10, also the imagery e.g., in 2 Baruch 6:7; 8:2, and Testament of Levi 10:3. Possibly there is here an allusion to the act of tearing one’s clothes in mourning (2 Kings 2:12); such an act is associated with the destruction of the Temple in the Talmud (b. Mo’ed Qatan 25b).

The letter to the Hebrews allows for a different sort of interpretation to the motif. Through his sacrificial death, Jesus (as High Priest) gives believers access, in a symbolic/spiritual sense, into the innermost shrine of God, effectively ‘splitting’ or removing the curtain (Heb 6:19-20; 9:3ff; 10:19-20). This makes for a beautiful application of the tearing of the curtain in the Passion narrative, but there is no real indication that such was in the mind of the Gospel writers. A more likely allusion, in the context of the Gospel narrative, is to the splitting of the heavens (using the same verb schízœ) at the Baptism of Jesus (Mk 1:10 par), when the Spirit (of God) comes unto/into/upon Jesus at the Baptism. In a similar manner, the Temple curtain is split at the time of Jesus’ death, when his own spirit (i.e. life breath) goes out of him (15:37b).

e. The Centurion’s words (v. 39)—The declaration by the centurion (“Truly this man was [the] Son of God”) is the climactic moment of the entire Passion Narrative. It is parallel to the question by the High Priest (14:61 par), and must be understood here in the context of the Judgment on the land (see above). A certain kind of irony is contained in this verse—a Gentile Roman confesses what the Jewish religious leaders are unwilling (or unable) to accept. Indeed, the centurion’s confession stands in stark contrast to the mocking taunts of the Jewish people and leaders at the scene (vv. 29-32). Occasionally commentators have tried to determine, at the historical level, what such a confession might have meant for such a Gentile Roman—that is, in what sense he might have understood the expression “Son of God”. While this is interesting speculation, it is generally irrelevant to the purpose of his confession in the context of the Gospel narrative. For the writer and his readers, as well as for all Christians today, the declaration is understood as a confession of belief in Christ’s true identity as Messiah and Son of God.

For several of the references given above, and for a detailed critical analysis of this episode in the Passion Narrative, cf. R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1994), pp. 1031-1198.

The Passion Narrative: Episode 5 (Mk 15:1-20 par)

The Interrogation (“Trial”) of Jesus before Pilate

Episode 5

Mark 15:1-20; Matthew 27:1-31; Luke 23:1-25

When we turn to the Roman “Trial” of Jesus—that is, his interrogation/examination before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate—we note immediately the parallelism between this episode and the earlier Sanhedrin scene. This comes out most clearly in the Synoptic version, as represented by Mark and Matthew. There is a basic similarity of structure/outline:

Even more precise is the structure of the interrogation scenes:

    • Testimony given against Jesus—14:56-59
      —Interrogator asks: “Do you answer nothing?” / Jesus is silent—14:60-61
      • Question: “Are you the Anointed One…?” —14:61b
        —Jesus’ answer: “You said (it)”—Matt 26:64a (cp. Mk 14:62a)
      • Question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” —15:2a
        —Jesus’ answer: “You say (that)”—15:2b
    • Testimony given against Jesus—15:3
      —Interrogator asks: “Do you answer nothing?” / Jesus is silent—15:4-5

There can be little doubt either of the close relationship between the titles “Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah) and “King of the Jews” in the questions asked by the High Priest and Pilate, respectively (they are connected in Lk 23:2). Both refer essentially to the same (Messianic) idea—of a ruler from the line of David who will appear (at the end-time) to deliver God’s people (the faithful of Israel) and bring Judgment on the nations. Any claim of kingship would have been viewed by the Roman government as a direct challenge to imperial authority in the provinces (of Judea, etc). The Gospel of John develops this theme of Jesus as “King of the Jews” considerably, as will be discussed in a separate note. It is also only in John’s account that the religious/theological charge emphasized in the earlier Sanhedrin scene is brought out again in this episode. These two aspects, the two halves of the Council’s question—Messiah/King and Son of God—define the structure of the Roman trial/interrogation in John’s version.

With regard to the Synoptic tradition in Mark/Matthew, the structure has been outlined above:

    • The Interrogation of Jesus by Pilate (“Are you the King of the Jews?”)—Mk 15:1-5
    • The Judgment, pronounced by the people/crowd—Mk 15:6-15
    • The Mocking/Mistreatment of Jesus (“Hail, King of the Jews!”)—Mk 15:16-20

There are here two important themes: (1) the motif of Jesus as “King of the Jews”, and (2) the emphasis on the crowd (i.e. the Jewish people) as the ones who pronounce judgment on Jesus. This latter theme is as clear in the Gospel (and early Christian) tradition as it is uncomfortable for most Christians today. There was a decided tendency by early (Gentile, non-Jewish) Christians to mitigate Pilate’s role in the death of Jesus, casting him as a sympathetic figure and placing the responsibility squarely on the Jewish leaders and people as a whole. The extent to which this is manifest in the Gospels is controversial and continues to be debated. Generally, however, the later Gospels (especially Matthew, see below) seem to show evidence of this tendency in developing the tradition. Even in the (earlier) Gospel of Mark, the central role of the crowd in this episode is clear enough (15:8-15). It also helps to explain the prominent inclusion of the historical tradition regarding Barabbas. The Gospel writer goes out of his way to explain that Barabbas was a violent rebel who has committed murder (v. 7; Lk 23:19 [Matthew is less precise]). When given a choice between a murderer and Jesus, the people choose the murderer!

The sympathetic portrait of Pilate indicated by Mk 15:8-10ff is developed considerably in Matthew and Luke. Matthew includes two important additions:

    • The introduction of Pilate’s wife who refers to her auspicious dream (declaring Jesus’ innocence, 27:19), and
    • The vivid exchange between Pilate and the crowd in vv. 24-25; the crowd’s climactic declaration is ominous indeed: “(Let) his blood (be) upon us and upon our offspring!” No thoughtful Christian can read this today without, I think, feeling a bit uncomfortable about its inclusion in the Gospel.

Luke’s version (23:1-25) is more complex, with a number of important differences between the Synoptic account in Mark/Matthew:

    • The interrogation scene (vv. 1-5) includes more precise accusations about the danger Jesus poses to Roman authority and the peace of the region, involving both political (v. 2) and religious (v. 5) charges.
    • Luke is unique in including the tradition that Pilate sent Jesus to Herod Antipas, to be judged (or examined) as one under Herod’s jurisdiction (vv. 6-12). In Luke’s version the mocking is done by Herod’s, not the Roman, soldiers (v. 11). Ironically, it is stated that this exchange resulted in friendship/reconciliation between Pilate and Herod (v. 12).
    • In the judgment scene (vv. 13-25), it is the group of Jewish leaders—representatives of the Council (v. 13)—and, apparently, not a crowd of the people as a whole, who demand Jesus’ death and the release of Barabbas. This emphasis, along with the inclusion of Herod (together with Pilate), is probably intended by the Gospel writer to bring Psalm 2:1-2 to mind, and is surely influenced by that Scripture (see Acts 4:25-28).

A significant point in the Synoptic versions is that the interaction between Jesus and Pilate is limited to the brief exchange in the interrogation scene (Mk 15:2-5 par), which, as noted above, was consciously shaped to match the Sanhedrin interrogation scene precisely. The situation is quite different in the Gospel of John, which records an extended dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, including some of the most memorable and striking verses in the entire Gospel. Because of this unique situation, I am devoting part 2 of this study to a discussion of John’s version of the Roman “Trial”.

The Passion Narrative: Episode 3 (Lk 22:39-46 par; Jn 18:1-11)

Episode 3: The Gethsemane Scene

The Prayer Scene—Mk 14:32-42; Matt 26:36-46; Lk 22:39-46

The Prayer scene in the Garden (or Gethsemane) is one of the most famous and moving portions of the Passion narrative, perhaps because of the powerful dramatic effect of seeing Jesus struggle with human fear and suffering—indicating how far he shared in the human condition (Heb 5:7, etc). The Synoptic Tradition makes this the central scene of the Passion narrative—epitomizing Jesus’ passion, properly speaking. The Markan outline vividly shows Jesus separate from the disciples, taking along with him only three (Peter and the brothers James and John); then he moves further away from them, and prays to God on his own. This movement into prayer takes place by steps:

    • To the disciples: “Sit here until [i.e. while] I speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray]” (v. 32)
      • He moves away, taking Peter, James and John with him (v. 33) He begins to be struck (with sorrow) and full (of distress) in (his) mind
      • To the three: “My soul is in pain (all) around until [i.e. to the point of] death! Remain here and stay aroused [i.e. keep awake, keep watch]” (v. 34)
        • He goes forward a little to pray by himself (v. 35a) He falls upon the ground (overwhelmed by the moment)

The time of prayer (lit. speaking out toward [God]) begins with verse 35b, where Jesus’ prayer is summarized by the narrator in the context of his Passion:

“he spoke out toward (God) [i.e. prayed] that, if it is possible, the hour [hœ¡ra] might go along (away) from him”

This is then repeated in direct address by Jesus, as part of a three-fold cycle (vv. 36-41a), in which Jesus prays for a time, and then returns to the three disciples to find them asleep. Only in the first instance are Jesus’ words—the essence of his prayer—recorded:

“Abba, (my) Father, all things are possible for you [i.e. are in your power]—(please) carry along this cup (away) from me! But (yet let it not be) what I wish, but what you (wish)” (v. 36)

Following this first time of prayer, Jesus’ address to the disciples (to Peter) is also recorded:

“Shim’on, are you sleeping? Did you not have strength to keep aroused [i.e. awake] for one hour? Stay aroused and speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray], that you might not come into (the) testing! The spirit has a forward impulse [i.e. is ready/willing], but the flesh is without strength.” (vv. 37-38)

The Gospel writer provides no further words until Jesus’ third (final) return, when he wakes the disciples and gives the climactic declaration in vv. 41-42. The reference to the “hour” (hœ¡ra) is parallel to that in verse 35b and marks the scene as the beginning of Jesus Passion—which will continue with his arrest, interrogation/trial, mistreatment, and death.

The Gospel of Matthew (26:36-46) follows Mark quite closely here, giving even greater definition to the three-fold cycle of prayer mentioned above. Several details serve to enhance and personalize the scene:

    • “he began to be in pain/sorrow…” [a different verb is used] (v. 37)
    • “remain here and keep aroused [i.e. keep awake/watch] with me” (v. 38)
    • “he fell upon his face” (v. 39)

More notable, Matthew records (the essence of) the first two times of prayer, giving us Jesus’ words:

    • 1st: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup go along (away) from me! Yet not as I wish (it), but as you (wish it to be)” (v. 39)
    • 2nd: “My Father, if this (cup) is not able to go along (from me) if not (that) [i.e. unless] I drink it, may your will come to be” (v. 42)

This doubling generally fits what Mark describes in 14:39, but creates a more dramatic moment.

Luke’s account (22:39-46) is rather different from the version in Mark/Matthew, though it clearly derives from the same basic tradition. Much depends on the status of verses 43-44, which are textually uncertain (for more on this, see the supplemental note). Commentators are divided on whether or not to include them as part of the original text. I am inclined to regard them as secondary—an ancient interpolation perhaps drawn from authentic (historical) tradition, despite the seemingly legendary quality to the details. If the shorter text is original, then Luke certainly presents a much abridged version of the scene, with two main differences:

    • The three-fold cycle of prayer is replaced with a single time of prayer, followed by Jesus’ return to the disciples.
    • There are two exhortations to pray, which frame the scene (see below)

The references to Jesus’ sorrow and distress have also been eliminated—that is, unless we accept vv. 43-44 as original, in which case Luke’s version contains a different (and even more striking) depiction of Jesus’ physical and emotional anguish. The overall tone and tenor of Luke’s account would seem to argue against this portrait in vv. 43-44. The shorter text has a clear chiastic structure (another argument in its favor):

    • Exhortation to the disciples to pray, so as not to come into testing/temptation (v. 40)
      • Jesus withdraws from them and falls down to his knees on the ground (v. 41)
        ——His prayer to the Father (v. 42)
      • He stands up from prayer and returns to the disciples (v. 45)
    • Exhortation to the disciples to pray, so as not to come into testing/temptation (v. 46)

The Lukan form of Jesus’ prayer differs slightly from those in Mark/Matthew, combining elements of both versions (compare above):

“Father, if you will (it), carry along this cup (away) from me! Yet let your will, not mine, come to be” (v. 42)

This idiom of drinking the cup is a way of expressing the acceptance of one’s destiny, as it has been determined by God. For something of the Old Testament background, see Psalm 11:6; 75:9; Isa 51:17, 22; Jer 25:15; 49:12; Lam 4:21. Sometimes the image carries the sense of accepting one’s death, as in the expression “cup of death” in the Jerusalem II Targum on Gen 40:23 (see Fitzmyer, p. 1442).

John 18:1-11

John’s version of the Garden scene is quite different from the Synoptics, and certainly derives from a separate line of tradition. Yet there are certain elements in common which indicate that both lines rely upon a fundamental set of historical traditions:

    • The general location—a place on the slope of the Mount of Olives, though indicated by different designations. John is unique in describing it as a garden spot across the “winter-flowing Kidron” riverbed (v. 1). There may be an allusion here to 2 Sam 15:23.
    • The arrival of Judas (the betrayal) with a crowd of police/soldiers and attendants of the religious authorities (Chief Priests, etc). The tradition that Judas was familiar with the place (v. 2) may have confirmation from the notice in Lk 22:39.
    • Jesus addresses them (specifically Judas) on their arrival
    • The incident of the disciple who cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s slave with a sword
    • Jesus’ words of rebuke in response (in Matthew & Luke, but not Mark), along with a declaration regarding the necessity of these things (i.e. his arrest) coming to pass
    • Jesus is taken into custody by the crowd

The outline of John’s account is quite simple:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)
    • The arrival of Judas with the crowd—their encounter with Jesus (vv. 3-9)
    • Peter’s violent action and Jesus’ response (vv. 10-11)

The central scene is very much unique to John, both in the way Judas is presented, and, even more so, by the depiction of the crowd’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 4-8). The detail in vv. 2-3 reminds the reader of Judas’ former inclusion as one of Jesus’ Twelve closest disciples, and of the betrayal as he arrives with a crowd of attendants (acting as police) from the Chief Priests, along with (Roman) soldiers (a detail found only in John). After verse 5, Judas essentially disappears from the scene; there is nothing corresponding to Mk 14:44-45 par. His role (as betrayer) was to set Jesus’ Passion and death in motion.

By contrast, the encounter in vv. 4-8 between Jesus and the crowd is striking, with nothing like it in the Synoptics (cp. Mk 14:48-49, for the nearest parallel). Jesus has a commanding presence, and speaks with such authority, so as to cause the crowd to shrink back and fall to the ground. His double declaration of egœ¡ eimi (“I am [he]”, vv. 6, 8) is certainly to be related to the earlier I AM statements of Jesus in John, and intended here as a declaration of his identity as the eternal Son of God. As such it carries definite Christological weight, and is a far cry from the portrait of Jesus in the Synoptic version of the Garden episode. In this same spirit is the emphasis on Jesus’ control over the disciples—those given to him by God the Father and left in his care (vv. 8-9). His authority protects them from harm in the moment of his arrest.

It is significant that John’s version contains nothing of the Synoptic depiction of Jesus’ distress and anguish; indeed, there is nothing at all corresponding to the Prayer scene (cf. above), except perhaps for the wording of the concluding declaration in v. 11. A closer parallel may be found at an earlier point in the narrative, in 12:27ff:

“Now my soul has been disturbed, and what may I say? ‘Father, save me out of this hour?’ But through this [i.e. for this reason] I came into this hour.” (v. 27)

The Johannine presentation of the disciple’s rash and violent act with the sword is meant to serve as a decided contrast to the calm authority and control with which Jesus acts. John provides several interesting (and unique) details:

    • The disciple, otherwise unidentified in the Synoptics, is Peter
    • The name of the slave—Malchus
    • Agreement with Luke in specifying the right ear

The latter is a natural development of the tradition; the second would appear (on objective grounds) to be authentic historical information. Only the identification of the disciple with Peter is problematic—how and/or why would the other Gospels have left out this key bit of information if it were part of the original tradition? However one judges the historical-critical question, the identification with Peter is important within the Johannine narrative, as it serves as a parallel to Peter’s role (his denial) in the next episode. His rash act with the sword is, in some ways, an extension of his failure in the denial scene. Often in the Gospel tradition, Peter effectively represents all the disciples, and so perhaps we should understand it here.

Even more significant is Jesus’ response to Peter’s act (v. 11). Matthew and Luke also record (very different) responses; John’s version is closest to the declaration by Jesus in Matthew (26:52-54), at least in its initial words:

“Turn your sword away back into its place!…” (Matthew)
“Cast (your) sword (back) into the sheath!…” (John)

In place of the Synoptic reference to the fulfillment of Scripture (Matt 26:54 par), in John’s version, Jesus’ words echo the Synoptic prayer scene:

“…the cup which the Father has given me (to drink), (indeed) shall I not drink it?” (v. 11b)

John’s account also differs slightly in that he separates the actual arrest of Jesus (v. 12) from the main Garden scene, making it part of the next episode—the interrogation of Jesus before the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin)—which will be discussed in part 3 of this study.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28, 28A (1985).

Saturday Series: Acts 8:26-40

Acts 8:26-40

This week’s study is related to recent notes and articles on the famous ‘Servant Song’ of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, an important Scripture passage that was interpreted in a Messianic sense by early Christians, and applied to the person and work of Jesus. In the last part of the article on this passage in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”, I explored how the poem came to be understood by early Christians. Portions from it were cited in the New Testament, in Acts 8:32-33; 1 Peter 2:23-25; Matthew 8:17; John 12:38; Rom 10:16, along with several other possible allusions (see, for example, Mk 9:12).

In this study I wish to explore further how verses 7-8 of the poem were utilized in the Acts 8 episode (vv. 26-40). Scripture quotations are central to the Acts narratives, but feature most prominently within the sermon-speeches. For example, in the great Pentecost sermon-speech of Peter (2:14-41), there are three Scripture citations which are used: Joel 2:28-32 (vv. 17-21); Psalm 16:8-11 (vv. 25-28); and Psalm 110:1 (vv. 34-35). These passages are fundamental to the Gospel proclamation (kerygma), being expounded and applied to Jesus (his death and resurrection). For a study of these Scriptures in the context of the Pentecost sermon, see Parts 2 and 3 of the series “The Speeches of Acts”.

The episode in 8:26-40 does not contain a sermon-speech, but it does illustrate the early Christian mission and Gospel preaching in action. Thus it is appropriate that a Scripture citation (of Isa 53:7-8) occurs at the center of the episode. To demonstrate the centrality of the Scripture, it may be helpful to present an outline of the episode as a chiasmus:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 26-27ab): Philip encounters the Ethiopian
      • The mission: guidance by the Spirit (vv. 27c-29)
        • Question regarding the Scripture (vv. 30-31)
          • Scripture citation (vv. 32-33)
        • Explanation regarding the Scripture (vv. 34-35)
      • The mission: baptism and the work of the Spirit (vv. 36-39a)
    • Narrative conclusion (vv. 39-40): Philip and the Ethiopian separate

Clearly, the Scripture citation lies at the very heart of the episode. In this instance, an exposition of the lines from the Servant poem forms the basis for the Gospel preaching. No actual preaching is recorded, merely the summary statement that Philip “gave to him the good message (regarding) Yeshua” (v. 35). He did this by “beginning from this Scripture” that the Ethiopian was reading. That is to say, the Scripture formed the basis for the preaching of the Gospel.

From the standpoint of the Acts narratives, as they record the earliest Christian preaching and missionary work, this is most significant, for a number of reasons. Foremost is the importance of the use of the Scriptures by early believers to demonstrate two key points regarding Jesus: (1) that he was the Anointed One (Messiah), and (2) that the death (and resurrection) of the Messiah was prophesied in the sacred Writings.

The idea that the Messiah would suffer and die, especially in the painful and disgraceful manner of crucifixion, was so contrary (and repugnant) to Jewish expectations, it had to be explained. How could Jesus have endured such a death, if he is truly the Messiah? The early Christians worked hard to reconcile and explain this, as they began their missionary work among Israelites and Jews in the area. It was necessary to marshal Scriptural support for the idea that the Messiah would suffer and die (and then rise from the dead). This is an important point of emphasis in the overall narrative of Luke-Acts, and is mentioned, either directly or implicitly, on a number of occasions—see Luke 18:31; 22:37; 24:26-27, 32, 44-45ff; Acts 3:18; 5:42; 8:5; 9:22; 13:27; 17:2-3, 11; 18:5, 28; 24:14; 26:22; 28:23.

As it happens, there are relatively few Old Testament passages which can be used in support of the idea that the Messiah would suffer and die. The Servant poem in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is certainly one of these; indeed, it may be regarded as the foremost such Scripture passage. It is thus quite proper that it should feature prominently in at least one of the missionary episodes in the book of Acts.

Before proceeding to an examination of how verses 7-8 of the poem are used within the narrative, we must briefly consider them from the standpoint of textual criticism. The text as it appears in Acts 8:32-33 is virtually identical to the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation. Only in the first line of v. 8 is there any difference. In some manuscripts of Acts, the reading is “in the humiliation of him” (i.e., “in his humiliation”), including the pronoun; but this is really only a minor variation, perhaps intended to bring greater clarity to the passage. The pronoun may be original, being omitted in certain manuscripts in order to conform the citation to the LXX.

Being a translation of poetry, it is not surprising that the Greek only loosely renders the Hebrew text. Here is a literal translation (in English) of the original Hebrew, with a corresponding translation of the Greek LXX, side by side:

Hebrew [MT]
LXX
“And he, being pressed (down), was (op)pressed,
and (yet) he did not open his mouth;
like a sheep to (the) slaughter he was carried (along),
and like a ewe before (the one) shaving her is bound,
and he did not open his mouth.
From oppression and from judgment he has been taken,
(and now) his (life) cycle—who thinks on it?
For he was cut off from (the) land of (the) living;
from (the) breaking (faith) by his people (the) touch (came) to him.”
“And he, through being ill-treated, did not open up the mouth;
as a sheep led upon the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the (one) shaving him (is) without voice,
so he did not open up his mouth;
in the humiliation, judgment [i.e. justice] for him was taken (away);
his (period of) coming to be, who brings (it) through [i.e. tells/declares it] (to us)?
(for it is) that his life is taken (away) from the earth;
from the lawlessness of the people, he was led to death.”

Only in the first line of verse 8 does the LXX differ substantially—in meaning and emphasis—from the Hebrew:

Hebrew:
“from oppression and from judgment he has been taken”
LXX/Acts:
“in the humiliation, judgment [i.e. justice] for him was taken (away)”

I understand the Hebrew to mean that the oppression and judgment (from YHWH) which fell upon the Servant led to his death (i.e., being “taken”). The sense in the LXX (and in the Acts citation), however, is that judgment/justice has been taken from the Servant—that is, he suffered and died unjustly. In this regard, the LXX translation provides a better fit to the circumstances of Jesus’ death. Early Christians took great pains to emphasize that the crucifixion of Jesus was an act of injustice, and that he himself was innocent and undeserving of such punishment.

If the citation of vv. 7-8 here is intended to illustrate the substance of the early Christian Gospel preaching, it seems clear that two aspects are most relevant to the message: (a) Jesus’ innocence and the injustice of his death, and (b) his meekness and humility (i.e., silence) in the face of this injustice. These two aspects are central to the understanding of Jesus as “the Righteous One” (ho díkaios), and we can see the importance of it for the earliest Gospel proclamation (kerygma)—cf. 3:13-15; 4:25-28; 5:28-31; 7:52, etc.

It is interesting that the aspect of the Servant’s vicarious/sacrificial suffering and death is not emphasized in the Acts episode (compare with 1 Peter 2:23-25), and the lines of the poem which bring out this aspect are not cited. This seems to reflect the thought of believers in the earliest period. While forgiveness of sin was made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus, this is expressed primarily through his exaltation (to heaven) by God, rather than through his death as an atoning sacrifice. While the latter is certainly part of the New Testament message, there is little or no evidence of it in the preaching recorded in the book of Acts. On this point, we may compare the reference to Jesus as the servant (of God) in 3:13.

Even more significant is the fact that the author of Acts cuts off the citation of Isa 53:7-8, omitting the final line that refers specifically to the vicarious, atoning nature of the Servant’s suffering. In Hebrew, this line reads:

“from (the) breaking (faith) by his people (the) touch [i.e. of death] (came) to him.”

The Greek translation, of the LXX, which would also have been used in Acts, reads:

“from the lawlessness [plur.] of the people, he was led to death.”

The reference is to the sin (and guilt) of the people. The Hebrew term (peša±) refers specifically to a violation of the covenant with YHWH (essentially an act of rebelliousness), while the Greek word (anomía) means “(act of) lawlessness”. Regardless of which aspect is being emphasized, it is the sin of the people that results in the death of the Servant. He is judged/punished by God for the people’s sins, not his own.

The author of Acts cannot have left out this line by accident; it must have been omitted on purpose. The best explanation is that the author simply did not wish to emphasize the vicarious/sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death. As we have seen (above), that aspect was not an important part of the Gospel preaching in Acts, nor does it feature prominently in the theology of Luke-Acts as a whole. Only one reference in the book of Acts (20:28) could be viewed as expressing anything like a clear belief in the vicarious, atoning character of Jesus’ death.

An interesting historical-critical question is whether this lack of reference to the vicarious/sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death is due to the early character of the preaching in Acts. If the sermon-speeches (in the early chapters, especially) represent authentic Gospel preaching from the period c. 35-50 A.D., then the relative lack of theological development would not be all that surprising. The focus of such early preaching was on the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection, the injustice of his death, and his identity as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God. Forgiveness of sin was definitely part of this proclamation, but it does not appear to have been specifically tied to the nature of his death.

Even the traditional emphasis on the establishment of the new covenant through Jesus’ death (his blood, see Lk 22:20 par) does not feature prominently in the book of Acts (see 3:25-26). This contrasts notably with Paul’s letters, written in the period c. 52-62 A.D., where the various theological (and Christological) aspects of Jesus’ death are developed in complex and powerful ways.

The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (concluded)

Isaiah 52:13-53:12, concluded

In the final portion of this article we will examine the application of 52:13-53:12 to the person of and work of Jesus. There are three primary New Testament references which make clear that early Christians, by the year 70 A.D. (at the latest), were citing this passage as a prophecy of Jesus’ life (and death). In addition, there are several other minor quotations or allusions that should be mentioned. However, before proceeding with a study of all these references, it will be worth highlighting the lines, in the original poem, which are most applicable to the Gospel tradition and beliefs regarding Jesus in the early period (c. 30-60 A.D.).

  • “See, my servant will show (his) understanding” (52:13a, note)
    By the 1st century B.C./A.D., the Deutero-Isaian “Servant of YHWH” was viewed as a Messianic figure (esp. in 42:1ff, cf. the earlier article in this series). To be sure, the Servant is more properly understood as a Messianic Prophet (according to the figure-type of Moses or Elijah), rather than the royal/Davidic Messiah. However, as I discuss at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, all of the Messianic figure-types were applied to the person of Jesus by early Christians. This includes the Messianic Prophet types, such as the “Prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15-19) who would appear at the end time.
  • “he will rise high and be carried up, and be very high [up]” (52:13b, note)
    The exaltation of the Servant to a heavenly position would obviously apply to the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus, so central to the Gospel message and the earliest Christology. Somewhat surprisingly, this particular connection is not mentioned in the New Testament, nor is 52:13 cited.
  • “so destroyed from (that of) a man (was the) sight of him…” (52:14, note)
    This line could easily be applied to physical abuse of Jesus during his Passion—particularly the vicious whipping (verberatio) by the Romans prior to crucifixion. Admittedly, the whipping/scourging is barely even mentioned in the Passion narratives, but the effect of it would have been obvious (and striking) to eye-witnesses.
  • “—so will he sprinkle many nations” (52:14, note)
    Assuming that the rendering of “sprinkle” is correct, this could be seen as a prophecy of early Christian baptism, tied to the apostolic mission to the Gentiles.
  • “Who has been firm (in trust) to (what) we have caused to be heard…” (53:1, note)
    Cited twice in the New Testament (cf. below) as a prophecy of the Gospel message (by and regarding Jesus), as well as the reaction to it.
  • “(there was) no (fine) shape to him, and no adornment that we should look (at) him” (53:2, note)
    This could be understood in light of the humble/modest origins and social standing, etc, of Jesus.
  • “He was disregarded and forsaken by men…” (53:3, note)
    Almost certainly, this verse was interpreted in light of Jesus’ suffering and his being rejected by many Israelites and Jews at the time. Cf. especially the wording of the Passion prediction in Mark 9:12 par.
  • “Certainly he has lifted our weaknesses, and our sorrows, he has carried them” (53:4a, note)
    This can be understood in terms of Jesus’ identification with human weakness and suffering, interpreted as a prophecy either of (a) the earthly ministry of Jesus (cf. on Matt 8:17 below), or (b) his (vicarious) suffering and death as sacrificial offering for the guilt/sin of humankind.
  • “But he was pierced from our acts of breaking (faith)…” (53:5a, note)
    Assuming that “pierce” is the correct rendering of the Hebrew, this can be seen as a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus (cf. also the study on Zech 12:10). There may be an allusion to 53:5a by Paul in Rom 4:25, where the emphasis is on the vicarious/sacrificial character of Jesus’ suffering and death.
  • “…and with (the) binding of his (wound)s there is healing for us.” (53:5b, note)
    My translation understands the final line of v. 5 in light of Isa 1:6. However, the emphasis may be on the wounds themselves, rather than the binding of them. Again, this would make for an obvious connection with the whipping (scourging) of Jesus prior to crucifixion (cf. above). The idea that his suffering/death brings healing for us makes for an excellent statement of the vicarious suffering of Jesus. Cf. on the quotation in 1 Peter 2:24 below.
  • “All of us, like a flock (of sheep), we have wandered…” (53:6, note)
    Another expression of the vicarious/sacrificial suffering and death of Jesus, also cited in 1 Pet 2:24-25 (cf. below). On Jesus as the Shepherd of God’s people, with the Messianic and Divine implications of that motif, cf. Mk 6:34; 14:27 pars; Matt 2:6; Jn 10:1-18; Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 5:2-4; Rev 7:17; and consult Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (on the Davidic Messiah).
  • “And he…was (op)pressed and (yet) he did not open his mouth….” (53:7, note)
    This was almost certainly understood as a prophecy of Jesus’ relative silence before his accusers in the (Synoptic) Passion narrative (Mk 14:60-61; 15:4-5 pars; cf. also Jn 19:9). 1 Peter (2:23) ties this aspect of Jesus’ character directly to Isa 53:7. Verses 7-8 are cited in Acts 8:32-33 (cf. below).
  • “For he was cut off from (the) land of (the) living” (53:8, note)
    A clear reference to the death of the Servant, forming an obvious parallel to the death of Jesus. The idea that the Messiah would suffer and die was highly controversial for Jews at the time, and it was virtually unique to the identification of Jesus as the Messiah.
  • “(even) though he (had) not done (any) violence, and (there was) no deceit in his mouth” (53:9, note)
    Verse 9a could conceivably be viewed as a prophecy of Jesus’ burial, though the idea of being buried “among the wicked” does not fit the circumstances of his burial particularly well. It applies better to the manner of his death (Mk 15:27f par). V. 9b would apply to Jesus’ innocence, that he was not deserving of such a painful and humiliating death.
  • “…with his knowledge my just servant shall bring justice for (the) many…” (53:11, note)
    Verses 10-12 emphasize again the vicarious nature of the Servant’s suffering and death, and how he took upon himself the guilt of the people. He is also characterized specifically as “just/righteous” (qyD!x^, Grk di/kaio$). On Jesus as the “righteous one” in the early tradition, cf. Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14; also Lk 23:47. Justice/righteousness comes to believers through the just/right character of Jesus (cf. Rom 1:17; 3:21-22; 5:17ff; 10:4; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21, etc).

Acts 8:26-40 (vv. 7-8)

Verses 7-8 are featured at the heart of the episode of Philip’s missionary encounter with the Ethiopian official in Acts 8:26-40. The Scripture citation (in 8:32-33) follows the LXX Greek, the wording of which provides a more fitting application to Jesus. Here is how the LXX of vv. 7-8 reads:

“And he, through being ill-treated, did not open up the mouth;
as a sheep led upon the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the (one) shaving him (is) without voice,
so he did not open up his mouth;
in the humiliation, judgment [i.e. justice] for him was taken (away);
his (period of) coming to be, who brings (it) through [i.e. tells/declares it] (to us)?
(for it is) that his life is taken (away) from the earth.”

The LXX only loosely translates the Hebrew, as is often the case with the Old Testament poetry. However, the overall sense of the lines is preserved well enough. Only in the first line of v. 8 does the LXX (and Acts) differ noticeably from the original Hebrew. A rather literal translation of the line into English is:

“From oppression and from judgment he has been taken”

I understand this to mean that the oppression and judgment (from YHWH) which fell upon the Servant led to his death (i.e., being “taken”). The sense in the LXX, however, is that judgment/justice has been taken from the Servant—that is, he suffered and died unjustly. In this regard, the LXX translation provides a better fit to the circumstances of Jesus’ death. Early Christians took great pains to emphasize that the crucifixion of Jesus was an act of injustice, and that he himself was innocent and undeserving of such punishment.

If the citation of vv. 7-8 here is intended to illustrate the substance of the early Christian Gospel preaching, it seems clear that two aspects are most relevant to the message: (a) Jesus’ innocence and the injustice of his death, and (b) his meekness and humility (i.e., silence) in the face of this injustice. These two aspects are central to the understanding of Jesus as “the Righteous One” (o( di/kaio$), and we can see the importance of it for the earliest Gospel proclamation (kerygma)—cf. 3:13-15; 4:25-28; 5:28-31; 7:52, etc. It is perhaps no coincidence that the two key references to Jesus as the “Righteous One” both come in the Messianic context of Jesus as the ‘Prophet like Moses’ (3:17-23ff; 7:17-53). As discussed in the previous portion of this article, and in the exegetical notes on Isa 52:13-53:12, there are good reasons to think that the Servant figure is closely tied to the type-pattern of Moses.

It is interesting that the aspect of the Servant’s vicarious/sacrificial suffering and death is not emphasized in the Acts episode, and the lines of the poem which bring out this aspect are not cited. This seems to reflect the thought of believers in the earliest period. While forgiveness of sin was made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus, this is expressed primarily through his exaltation (to heaven) by God, rather than through his death as an atoning sacrifice. While the latter is certainly part of the New Testament message, there is little or no evidence of it in the preaching recorded in the book of Acts. On this point, we may compare the reference to Jesus as the servant (of God) in 3:13, and note how the author of Acts cuts off the citation of Isa 53:7-8 omitting the final line that refers specifically to the vicarious, atoning nature of the Servant’s suffering.

The only conceivable reference in the book of Acts to Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice (for sin) is at 20:28, where Paul speaks of the Christian congregations (the e)kklhsi/a) as something which God “made [i.e. gathered/acquired] around Him through the blood of His own [Son]”.

1 Peter 2:21-25 (vv. 4-7, 9, 11)

The same points of emphasis can be seen in 1 Peter’s use of the passage, but with a much stronger reference to the vicarious aspect of the Servant’s suffering—how he took upon himself the sin/guilt of the people. In the context of the letter, the author (Peter) is referring to situations where believers may suffer and undergo oppression unjustly (vv. 19-20). In such instances, we are to follow the example of Jesus:

“For unto this we were called, (in) that (the) Anointed (One) also suffered over us, leaving behind for us an underwriting, (so) that we might follow upon his (foot)steps” (v. 21)

The example of Jesus—literally, an “underwriting” (u(pogra/mmo$), i.e. a writing used as an exemplar for copying—is described in vv. 22-25 largely using words and phrasing (or paraphrasing) from the Servant Song. It begins in v. 22, which essentially quotes 53:9b (cf. the note):

“…who did not do (any) sin, and deceit [do/lo$] was not found in his mouth”

This emphasizes the innocence of Jesus (with regard to his death), but also his righteous and holy character generally. Such character is demonstrated by the fact that he did not respond in like manner when he was mistreated:

“…who, being abused, did not abuse (back) against (them); (though) suffering, he did not threaten, but gave (himself) along justly to the (one) giving judgment” (v. 23)

This almost reads like a explanatory comment on the more colorful description in 53:7. He suffered and did not resist or strike back, allowing himself to stand before the judgment (i.e., the interrogations before the Jewish and Council and the Roman tribunal of Pilate). He endured this suffering even to the point of death, and it is his death that is emphasized in verse 24:

“…who himself took up our sins on his own body (when) upon the tree, (so) that, coming to be (dead) from the sins, we should live to justice/righteousness—of which (it is said) ‘by the battle-marks you were healed’.”

The crucifixion of Jesus—that is, his death on the cross—is identified as the moment when he “took upon” himself the sin/guilt of the people (“our sins”). This clearly stands as a reference to the vicarious and atoning aspect of Jesus’s death (an aspect generally missing from the book of Acts, cf. above). It is related to the same idea expressed in the poem regarding the Servant’s suffering and death (probably vv. 4-5 are primarily in mind, cf. also v. 11). The author specifically cites the closing line of v. 5, an adaptation of the LXX version, which itself reads:

“…by his battle-marks we were healed”
tw=| mw/lwpi au)tou= h(mei=$ i)a/qhmen

The noun mw/lwy fundamentally refers to a mark (bruise, wound, etc) left as a result of fighting. The Hebrew term (hr*WBj^) is more enigmatic, referring to something that is bound or joined together. When used in the context of a wound, it may signify something that is cut into the flesh, though I tend to view the wording in light of Isa 1:6, and the idea of binding up one’s wounds (wordplay between rbj and vbj). For 1 Peter, however, it seems that the wounds themselves—as the marks of Jesus’ suffering (and death)—are a sign of our healing (from sin). This healing continues to be the subject of the concluding statement:

“For you were as sheep being made to wander, but you (have) been turned back now upon the herder and overseer of your souls.” (v. 25)

The sheep/shepherd motif is traditional, but it certainly alludes to v. 6 of the Servant song (cf. the note). The author (Peter) develops it further in the letter, at 5:1-5.

Matthew 8:17 (v. 4)

The Gospel writer in Matthew 8:17 also cites v. 4 of the poem, expressing the idea that Jesus took upon himself the suffering and weakness of the people. However, in the Gospel context where this is quoted, it has nothing whatever to do with Jesus’ death. Rather, it is related to the healing miracles performed by Jesus during his ministry in Galilee (8:2-16). The Hebrew term yl!j( literally means “weakness”, but this can be understood as resulting from sickness or illness—which would be appropriate for the healing ministry of Jesus.

The Gospel writer does not quote from the LXX, but a Greek translation that is closer to the original Hebrew. The Hebrew may be translated in English as follows (cf. the note on v. 4):

“Certainly he has lifted our weaknesses,
and our sorrows, he has carried them”

Here is a rendering of the Greek in Matt 8:17:

“he took our weaknesses and carried (about) our sicknesses”

Unless the association here with Isa 53:4 is purely superficial (based on the reference to sickness), it is necessary to understand Jesus’ “taking up” our weakness in a broader and more holistic sense. As the “son of man”, he identified himself with the human condition—including its weakness and mortality. This was an important part of his ministry (cf. the “Son of Man” sayings in Mk 2:10; 10:45 pars; Matt 8:20 par; Lk 19:10), and should not be limited to his suffering and death in Jerusalem.

John 12:38; Romans 10:16 (v. 1)

Finally, we should mention the citation of v. 1 in the Gospel of John (12:38) and Paul’s letter to the Romans (10:16). John’s citation (which matches the LXX) comes at the close of the first half of the Gospel (the so-called “Book of Signs”, chaps. 2-12), in a narrative summary that emphasizes how, even though Jesus had done great signs among the people, many of them refused (or were unable) to trust in him (12:37). This is then said to be a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in 53:1, treated as a rhetorical question, implying that few (if any) of the people will believe the report given about the Servant (cf. the note on v. 1).

The Gospel writer deals with this sensitive topic—that is, why so many Israelites and Jews at the time did not accept Jesus as the Messiah—by adding an explanation that became traditional among early Christians, citing Isa 6:10, a passage that is quoted, for this same purpose, twice more in the New Testament (Matt 13:14-15 par; Acts 28:26-27). The rejection of Jesus by his people was very much part of the suffering he experienced, and fairly represents the experience of the Servant in the poem.

Paul’s use of v. 1 (citing the first half of the verse, again according to the LXX) in Rom 10:16b is very similar. He states bluntly in v. 16a that “not all have heard under [i.e. listened and submitted to] the good message”. The context of chapters 9-11 is centered upon this very issue: how and why so many Israelites and Jews have failed/refused to accept the Gospel. It was a matter dear to Paul’s heart, as we can see from the way he opens each of the three chapters.

Paul’s reference implies that the suffering/rejection of Jesus extends also to his followers—that is, those who proclaim the message of Jesus to others. Paul experienced firsthand suffering and hardship from his fellow Israelites/Jews, as we see narrated throughout the book of Acts, and referenced on occasion in his letters (e.g., 1 Thess 2:14-16). Jesus predicted that his disciples would experience just this kind of suffering (Mk 13:9-13 par, etc), and would even be put to death. In experiencing such suffering, believers are, in their/our own way, following the example of Jesus (the Servant) himself (Mk 8:34 par, etc).

 

 

April 21: Isaiah 52:14-15

Isaiah 52:14-15a

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you—
so destroyed from (that of) a man (was the) sight of him,
and (the) appearance of him from (that of the) sons of man
—so will he sprinkle many nations.”

There are four lines here in vv. 14-15a, the second and third of which represent a parenthetical descriptive statement. It is the first and fourth lines that provide the principal declaration:

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you,
….
so will he sprinkle many nations.”

The shift from 2nd person to 3rd may seem awkward or confusing to us, but it is not at all uncommon in Hebrew poetry (including the Prophetic poems). In the initial line, the Servant is being addressed. Based on the context of verse 13 (discussed in the previous note), the scene of vv. 14-15ff would appear to be the heavenly court of YHWH, the Servant having been exalted and elevated to a heavenly position. If so, then it is the court/council of YHWH—if not YHWH Himself—who addresses the Servant.

The verb <mv* denotes “devastation, desolation,” etc. The seeming obscurity of why “many (people)” would be “devastated” by the sight of the Servant helps to explain the parenthetic lines 2-3, which serve to clarify the situation. The “devastation” is a reaction to the “destruction” (tj^v=m!, from the root tjv) of the Servant. It is specifically his visible appearance that has been destroyed (i.e., marred, disfigured); the two nouns used to express this are ha#r=m^ (“seeing, something seen, sight of [something]”) and ra^T) (“shape, form, outline”). The latter word implies that his physical form has, in some way, been destroyed.

The extent of the physical/visible destruction is defined by the use of the preposition /m! (“from”) in a comparative sense (i.e., more than). His appearance/form has been destroyed more than that of an ordinary human being—parallel terms “man” [vya!] and “sons of man” [<d*a* yn@B=]). The parallelism here is both synonymous and emphatic, with the double-reference used for dramatic emphasis.

Clearly, the Servant has endured considerable suffering (which may have led to his death, cf. the discussion in the previous note), though no indication is given here of the exact nature of this suffering, nor the reasons for it. However, it establishes the important theme, of the Servant’s suffering, that will be developed in the remainder of the poem.

The most difficult part of vv. 14-15a is the use of the verb hz`n` (“sprinkle”) in the final line. It is said that the Servant (“he”) will “sprinkle many nations”. This provides a comparative parallel with the first line (cf. above):

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you
|| so will he sprinkle many nations.”

This suggests that the “sprinkling” is related in some way to the devastated reaction over the Servant’s appearance. But what, precisely, is the significance of this “sprinkling”?

[It should be noted that some commentators, following the LXX translation qauma/sontai (“they will wonder [at]”), would explain the verb hz`n` in the sense of “spring/leap up”, possibly to be identified with a separate root hzn (II) with this meaning, posited on the basis of evidence in Arabic. This seems to me quite tenuous, being introduced by commentators almost entirely for the purpose of explaining the odd mention of “sprinkling” here in v. 15. However, if valid, the lines above would need to be translated as:

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you
|| so will he cause many nations to leap [i.e., with amazement].”

This supposed use of hz`n` is unattested anywhere else in the Old Testament, compared with the regular use of the verb in the sense of “sprinkle, spurt”; this, combined with the introduction of the theme of purification (cf. below) in the prior vv. 11-12, strongly argues for retaining the meaning of “sprinkle” here.]

The verb hz`n` occurs 24 times in the Old Testament, almost always in connection with purification rituals, sometimes associated specifically with the consecration and service of the priesthood. 15 of the 24 occurrences are in the book of Leviticus; cf. also Exod 29:21; Num 8:7; 19:4, 18ff. The verb is used once more in the book of Isaiah (63:3), but that is the only other reference in Prophets. The usage in Isa 63:3 is significant in that it departs from the traditional association with purification; instead, it is serves as a powerful image of judgment—the end-time judgment by God against the nations. In this case, the sprinkling (or better, splattering) of blood is compared with the image of the ‘blood’ of grapes that is pressed/poured out in the harvesting and production of wine. This harvest imagery, used as a motif of the end-time Judgment, is also found in Joel 3:13ff, and was picked up also in the Last Judgment visions of the book of Revelation (14:8-10ff, 17-20; 19:15, etc).

However, the context here in our passage suggests rather that the more common, positive sense of purification is in view (cf. on the initial verses 11-12, in the previous note). While it is not possible to make a definite assessment at this point in our study, the reference here seems to evoke an important Deutero-Isaian theme—namely, that the new covenant established with Israel will, in the New Age, ultimately be extended to the other nations as well. The Servant and “Anointed One[s]” of YHWH will play a key role in this eschatological ‘mission’ to the surrounding nations. This is a point that was discussed in the earlier article on Isa 42:1ff, and will be elaborated further as we continue in our analysis of 52:13-53:12. Based on the immediate context of verses 14-15, it is not at all clear just what the Servant’s role will be, or what is involved in his “sprinkling” the nations, beyond the general association with purification (cf. above). Again, we should be able to gain greater clarity on this point as we proceed through the passage.

In terms of an early Christian application of vv. 14-15 to the person of Jesus, one can easily see how it would have been applied to his suffering and death. The severe marring of his physical appearance would have fit in quite well with the historical reality of the crucifixion (including the whipping/scourging that preceded it). Even though the visible, physical affects of this punishment are barely mentioned at all in the Gospel narratives (being treated with considerable reserve), many Christians at the time would have been aware of it. Another Deutero-Isaian reference, which would have been more applicable to the (physical) mistreatment/abuse of Jesus, prior to (and apart from) the scourging, is 50:6 (cp. Mark 14:65; 15:19 pars; John 18:22-23).