Filling in the blanks...

Editorial by Arthur J. Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 28, Issue 2
March – April 2015
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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.”

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Christians usually gloss over these historical considerations. Familiarity with the amalgamated story allows one to glide quickly over the nasty parts. We let the momentum of the tale sweep us away from ground zero. What would happen if we stood still for a moment and asked why those early gospel writers (either Peter or Mark) chose such a narrative pattern? The Tale of the Innocent One was invoked by a real trauma, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The selection of this Tale meant a radical Jewish response to what would have been seen as a total disaster. Rome had loudly and definitely spoken by torturing this Jew to death. His fate was to be annihilated, not just physically, but erased from human memory.

But his followers would not let him go. The essence of torture is to break a human being, to dominate so that a person is reduced to incoherence and despair. The torturer can taunt, “Cry out as loud as you can, no one can hear you!” Torture works on our deepest and oldest fear: that we are utterly abandoned. Some of the followers of Jesus refused to deny the depths of that trauma. They returned to the cavity of a lost life. They returned to that foul and filthy scene. They returned to fill in the blanks.

The followers’ choice of the Tale of the Innocent picked up the echo of the torture chamber. But the story they told refused to reduce the victim to a single cry of despair. Even as they themselves felt the tremors of suffering and death, they remembered the trust out of which Jesus lived, and they continued in that contrary confidence. Their experience gave sorrow words.

The death story of Jesus, then, was not a simple assemblage of facts. Rather the original choice arose from a sense of creative solidarity. The early Jewish followers refused to forget the one who imagined an atmosphere in which the lost of the world could breathe and grow. They told of his death to upend the forces of domination and annihilation that continued to play out in their lives. They told and retold the story as they breathed life into that locus of death. They would not allow abandonment to be the final word.

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.

The Fourth R 28-2

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