A Death that Would Not Die: A Primer on Jesus & the Passion

A Report on Arthur Dewey

By Alexis Waggoner | 6.18.2018

In his presentation on “How the Death of Jesus was Remembered,” Arthur Dewey started by pointing out that the death of Jesus doesn’t seem to be remembered at all — at least not iconographically — till the 400’s. There are plenty of other images of Jesus prior to this, but his death isn’t portrayed at all for centuries. And there are few written statements either specifically about Jesus’ death either. We do get pieces of memory about Jesus - and remembering in the first place was a counter-cultural act because he was executed as enemy of the state.

Dewey began his investigation of the remembrance of the crucifixion with Jesus himself, demonstrating that Jesus did not anticipate his death. Rather, the mentioning of his death comes from sayings and stories that emerge after the event in various forms. The earliest manuscripts like Gospel of Thomas or the Didache don’t mention Jesus’ death and certainly not a resurrection event.  The Q Gospel only alludes to Jesus suffering a prophet’s fate.

Jesus’ death is first mentioned in Paul in the late 40’s, but even then, Dewey pointed out, it isn’t proportionally prevalent. Insofar as it is mentioned, Paul uses traditions about the death of Jesus, taking the event and turning it into something positive. However, there’s no description of the death of Jesus, just the mythic meaning of Jesus. It’s a revelation of God’s reliability, integrity, indicating Jesus had trust in God that resulted in being raised after death. This confidence in life after death points again to an earlier tradition.

In earlier Jewish texts death, especially tortuous death, is set in the realm of metaphor. It’s something that is given meaning after the fact — a midrash that takes an event and begins to create story, implications, extrapolating out a larger application. When Paul cites the tradition connecting Jesus’ death and an atoning sacrifice, Dewey suggested that Paul is using what Jesus followers in Syria had done, namely, turning a tortured death into a meaningful gesture.

Dewey explained how people in this ancient context are beginning to re-think the death of Jesus. They’re being both Jewish and Hellenistic about it — taking elements from Jewish tradition to infuse meaning into this graphic death, they’re turning it into something heroic, even exalting Jesus to the status of emperor. Both practices had inherently religious and political implications.

In the second half of his presentation, Dewey opened by stating that the earliest textual evidence does not support an extended narrative about death of Jesus. This is in sharp contrast to a frequent Christian assumption that the passion narrative reflects all the facts and that the narrative existed from the earliest times. But, he stated, he’s also not advocating for removing from the Gospels anything that seems less-than-literal.

Instead, Dewey advocates for asking the question, “how did the ancients remember,” which he points out is quite different from understanding how modern culture remembers events. This leads away from asking, “what are the facts,” and instead raises the question, “how was this narrative put together? What is the texture of the evidence?” A common framework for understanding the death of a “suffering innocent one” is reflected in the eventual stories of Jesus’ death: the accused is innocent but put through a painful ordeal, sometimes executed, but always vindicated.

Dewey then began an investigation of Mark and the Gospel of Peter — one of which is likely the source material for the subsequent passion narratives. In the Gospel of Peter, the components you would expect in a story about a suffering righteous one are there, although Jesus is left unnamed. Peter’s passion story ends with Jesus' vindication (“being taken up”) and the repentance of the people. Dewey suggested that this story is told to be self-reflexive, to get people in the community to understand who Jesus is. For Peter’s mixed community, the narrative appeals to both Jews, who are carrying the shame of being blamed for Jesus’ death, and Gentiles, who are able to identify with the victim.

Meanwhile, Mark was written to a community that sees themselves as the last group of the faithful. For them, the story is told not to tell people what happened, but to tell people that their deaths are meaningful. Jesus’ passion narrative lets people know there is meaning in a tale of suffering but rather than place the blame on the Jews, it is written to do exactly the opposite —  to make sense of the suffering of innocent ones.

In this way, it’s a story for everyone. Dewey reminded us that we can all think of someone innocent who has died and suffered. The passion story is not a drive for the facts, it’s a drive to make sense out of the suffering of innocents that have put this text together.

CD label for Arthur Dewey from Spring 2018

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As Marketing and Digital Education Director, Alexis Waggoner works closely with both Westar’s Marketing Committee and the Executive Director to advance the presence and value of Westar in our culture through social media and the use of digital media in public education. Alexis brings to Westar a unique blend of digital marketing and religious education experience. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. 

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