As the Lenten season inevitably revolves Christian memory back to that death in Jerusalem, I am struck once again by the shadow side of that ancient tale. Despite the chapped-lip-service given to history by Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus, very few Bible readers want to know what really went on. “We know the story and we’re sticking to it.”
But if you took the time to read the various accounts (from Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and Peter), you would find that the most certain facts are two: Jesus was crucified and that his death was at the hands of Rome. Everything else in the various narratives is up for interpretive grabs. For example, the dramatic scene (first found in Mark) where Jesus prays in the garden is very much a later construction by the Markan community. (Think about it: how did the sleeping disciples know what Jesus said while praying?) In fact, most New Testament scholars point out that Mark portrayed Jesus as a martyr and that the garden scene allows the later community to place their own prayers on Jesus’ lips. As with the other gospels, Mark filled in the blanks surrounding the fate of Jesus.
Indeed, the entire structure of the passion narrative (found in each version) existed prior to the time of Jesus. The Tale of the Trial and Vindication of the Innocent One had been in existence since the Jews responded to the shock and awe of the Seleucid (Hellenistic Syrian) overlord, Antiochus Epiphanes IV around 165 bce. While some Jews (such as the Maccabees and their followers) fought against the occupying Syrian forces, a number of scribes were shattered by the loss of so many innocent people who had remained faithful to the traditions of Israel and were summarily executed. Where was God? How could God not protect those who kept the covenant? The scribes answered with the Tale of the Innocent One who is ultimately vindicated by God despite ordeal, trial, and (sometimes) death. It is within this Jewish fiction format that the gospel writers set the death of Jesus.
But if that is so, then Bill O’Reilly and so many others got it wrong. Instead of treating the gospel versions as eyewitness documents, brimming with facts, one can detect a creative hand at work. Jews would call this midrash, a fictional weaving to make sense of things.
This gets us to the shadow side. To choose to tell the story of the death of Jesus along the structural lines of the Tale of the Innocent One meant that some unknown Jewish writer was responding to a disastrous situation and used the literary repertoire at his disposal. Crucifixion in the Roman Empire was in fact the worst fate of all. The true horror story of the ancient world, crucifixion represented the ultimate isolation and liquidation of a person. The naked victim was shamed publicly and any memory was to be erased. Even the remains were usually thrown into a mass grave and dissolved with lye. Upper-class Roman writers would only allude to crucifixion. Those who raised a sandal against the empire were condemned to such a “disappearance.”