Did Jesus attribute any importance to his death?

Και γαÏ? á½? θιος του ἀνθÏ?ωπου ουκ ἠλθεν διακονηθηωαι ἀλλα διακονησαι
και δουναι την ψυχην ἀυτου λυτÏ?ον ἀντι πολλων
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many.�
(Mark 10:45)

In this essay I will look at some of the reasons for which Jesus claimed he had to die. There are obviously references to Jesus’ prophecies of his death in the gospel accounts, but these can easily be dismissed by critics as prophecies after the event. The way to approach this question is not in a direct manner, because there is so much debate in gospel studies as to whether a particular text or theme is actually genuinely of Jesus, or whether is is a later Christian redaction. The best approach is to work out the way Jesus could have been thinking about his death in the context of the thought of the time, and then see how well this picture fits with the ones painted in the gospels and other early Christian accounts. To do this, we will first build up a theoretical argument taking the broadest strokes from what the gospels tell us about who Jesus claimed to be, and look at sources prior to Jesus to see how he could have understood himself in the context of Jewish thought. We will then see how well this theory enables us to understand the Jesus represented in the gospels, in two of the greatest events of his ministry, which are corroborated in all the gospels: the cleansing of the temple and the last supper (also in 1 Corinthians).

Jesus believed that he was the Messiah. Precisely what this means is debated, but it is certain that he saw himself as the leader of Israel. The gospels record many hints of this, for example Jesus had compassion on the people because they were “like sheep without a shepherdâ€? (Mt 9:36/Mk 6:34). The fact that Jesus then starts to teach them and the vast crowds follow him around implies that he believes himself to be the shepherd of the sheep of Israel, because the Pharisees and teachers of the law were not fulfilling their duty as shepherds. At the end of John, when Jesus reinstates Peter as a disciple, he tells him to “tend my sheepâ€? and to “feed my sheepâ€? (Jn 21:16,17). By doing this, Jesus clearly believes that he is the shepherd of the people. Both Mark and Matthew have explicit recollections that Jesus predicted his death by quoting Zech 13:7 (Mt 26:31/Mk 14:27). The passage in Zechariah talks about the shepherd being struck and the sheep scattering, which is what all the gospels record as happening to the crowds and Jesus’ disciples, as he dies alone on the cross, save for a few followers standing around and many people mocking him.

Being the leader of Israel also meant that Jesus somehow encapsulated the people in himself. This idea is derived from the OT in which the king was seen as representative of the people. For example, when David went against God’s will and held a census, God did not just punish him but the entire people (2 Sam 24). Likewise, throughout the books of Kings and Chronicles, the king and his people are very closely tied to each other. As we shall see later, Jesus clearly believed that he did encapsulate Israel in himself, and by his suffering and death, he would both atone for the sins of the nation, and be vindicated.

But how would this work? Clearly the early church referred to the fourth servant song in Isaiah as being about Jesus, and Jesus seems to have pointed at that in his own ministry (although the references and allusions in the gospels can be argued away as early Christian gloss). However, there are the beginnings in several different areas preceding early Christianity. At Qumran, they believed that the community would suffer, but “God will deliver [them] from the House of Judgement because of their suffering and because of their faith in the Teacher of Righteousnessâ€? (1QpHab 8:2-3). During the Maccabaean revolt, the people clearly thought that God was angry with the nation, and so offered their lives as sacrifices to turn away his wrath. The seventh brother, as he is dying, says “I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation … to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nationâ€? (2 Mac 7:37-38). All the brothers also believe that “after enduring a brief suffering, have drunk of ever-flowing life, under God’s covenantâ€? (7:36). The brothers go to their deaths to avert God’s wrath from the nation, knowing that they will receive the gift of new life from Him. We therefore see that there is already an idea of an individual or community accepting punishment as a way of averting the wrath of God from the nation.

If we place these arguments together, we see that Jesus saw himself as the leader of Israel, who was also its representative. He also would have seen his suffering as taking upon himself the wrath of God, and eventually being vindicated after death. If we link these ideas together, we see that Jesus would have thought that by his death he would encapsulate the nation and hence avert the wrath of God on them.

The first event which we shall look at to see if it bares relation to the portrait which we have just worked out is Jesus action in the temple (Mk 11:15-19 &pars.). The traditional view of this is that in his action in the temple, Jesus is showing how the old covenant and system of mediation in that covenant is being replaced by a new and better covenant inaugurated by His death. His action is not a prophetic demonstration of the destruction of the temple (which occurred in 70AD), but he drives out the traders in order to show that sacrifice will no longer be required. However, recently Sanders has argued that this traditional interpretation (dating from Mark or earlier) is an incorrect understanding of what Jesus was trying to do. He says that Jesus was actually performing a prophetic sign that the temple would be destroyed, like Ezekiel with his siege of Jerusalem (Ez 4-5); but that people have misunderstood it and the gospel writers were embarrassed by the idea of Jesus trying to show the temple was going to be destroyed. The main problem with Sanders’ account is that the gospel writers were not ashamed of Jesus predicting that the temple was going to be destroyed. He also fails to believe that Jesus could possibly be more than an internal Jewish reformer trying to address some of his perceived injustices in the sacrificial system. Evans has five more arguments against Sanders in his article. Mark, probably our earliest account, encloses the temple scene within a chaism of Jesus cursing a fig tree and it withering. We should therefore understand the temple scene in this setting: Jesus’ condemnation of something (both the fig tree and the temple) has a dramatic effect. The condemnation of the temple is a hint that Jesus later expands upon, that he is moving the temple system onto himself. Whereas before the nation came to the temple to offer their sacrifices, in the future they will come to Him, however this cannot be done without his sacrifice. In this way, he points forward to give his death meaning.

We will now look at the “last supperâ€? accounts and see how they relate to the picture of Jesus’ thought which we sketched above. Regardless of the various harmonisation problems in the texts, we can see several key things. On the night before Jesus died, he had a passover meal with his disciples. In it, instead of following the normal pattern he claimed that the bread was his body and the wine was his blood, which was shed to inaugurate a new covenant between man and God. The passover meal was meant to remind Jews about how God had helped them in the miraculous exodus from Egypt. They had been freed from their slavery and released from their captivity by the action of God, so they could be a nation set aside as God’s chosen people. Jesus action with the bread is prophetic symbolism which shows he was aware he was going to die soon. This in itself does not point to him considering his death important, but the fact that he did not try to run away or avoid death, even though he knew that was going to happen to him surely indicates that he saw it as necessary and important. Jesus’ words about the cup have many echoes of the OT. The idea of a cup is used in the prophets as symbolic of God’s wrath. God forces various nations to drink the cup of his wrath with the result that they will stumble around as though drunk. This symbolises that Jesus will feel God’s wrath, which links in to our theological picture of him as taking upon himself the wrath of God. Jesus’ words of “This is my blood of the new covenantâ€? which all the disciples are expected to partake of echo the inauguration of the first covenant where “Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, ‘See the blood of the covenant that YHWH has made with you…’â€? (Exodus 24:8). This action of Jesus points to the establishment of a new covenant, as we have seen his action in the temple did. The whole meal in itself is the passover, the story of the exodus, but refocused around Jesus. This links with Zech 9:11 which says “because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners freeâ€?. This has an exodus theme and the following verses talk about God’s salvation plan. Jesus is saying that by his death, he will cause a new exodus and establish a new covenant with God for the nation of Israel, which has now been redefined around him.

The best explanation of the frequent allusions to Psalm 22 in the crucifixion scenes of Jesus is that on the cross, Jesus did actually quote some of it. However the cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?â€? is not just a cry of someone fully experiencing God’s wrath on behalf of the flock which he leads, the psalm goes on to talk about the ushering in of an eschatological age in which “the poor shall eat and be satisfiedâ€? (22:26) and finishes with the future generations who “proclaim his deliveranceâ€? (22:31). By quoting this psalm, Jesus is intertwining all the strands which for him his death means. Jesus clearly sees meaning in his death, and sees it in a variety of different ways elsewhere as he allows a woman to prepare his body for burial and tells stories of how the chicken saves her chicks by gathering them under her wings. He is the leader of a people, but has been put to death by earthly rulers so that he might encapsulate his people and suffer God’s wrath on behalf of them.

Evans, Craig A.; ‘Jesus’ Action in the Temple: Cleansing or Portent of Destruction?’; CBQ51 (1989), 237-270.
Hengel, Martin; The Cross of the Son of God; SCM, 1997
Sanders, E. P; The Historical Figure of Jesus; SCM, 1993
Wright, N. T.; Jesus and the Victory of God; SPCK, 1996

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