Unification Theology

by Young Oon Kim

Current Opinions About Jesus' Death

How do contemporary scholars view the meaning of Jesus' death? Bultmann's opinion is probably the most radical: We simply do not know what Jesus thought about his end. Possibly he broke down 65 completely, his faith shattered. As Mark suggests, Jesus cried out in despair, uttered a loud moan and gave up the spirit. Thus the German Biblical critic Willi Marxsen concludes that one can say with a great deal of confidence that Jesus did not look upon his death as a saving event. 66

The Tijbingen Catholic theologian Kasper attempts to avoid such a drastic conclusion. He admits that our sources pose problems. The sayings source ("Q") used by Matthew and Luke contains no direct reference to the Passion and nowhere attributes any saving efficacy to the cross. All that the Logia point out is that prophets die violently (Lk. 11:49) and that Christians must expect persecution (Lk. 6:22).

Nevertheless, in the Synoptics there are various prophecies about Jesus' death. All of these treat the crucifixion as a divinely ordained necessity. They claim Jesus knew that he must die and accepted his fate voluntarily. But are these texts reliable? Kasper admits that almost all scholars agree that the predictions are unhistorical post-Easter interpretations. If the disciples knew Jesus would die and be resurrected, why were they dismayed by the crucifixion and why did they at first find it difficult to accept the evidence of the visions of the risen Jesus?

As for the Passion narratives, they clearly reveal the apologetic, dogmatic and devotional interests of the later Christian community. All the New Testament narratives interpret Jesus' end in the light of the resurrection. The Synoptic traditions concerning the Passion also retroactively explain his death as fulfillment of Isaiah 53, Psalm 69:21 67 and Psalm 22:1.

Admitting all of this, Kasper raises the question, Did Jesus recognize the possibility of being killed? First, the eschatological hope included belief in a time of apocalyptic tribulation. The End-time would be one of great temptation and suffering. Secondly, because of the intense opposition Jesus aroused by his preaching, he had to take into account the possibility of a violent death. Thirdly, the bloody fate of John the Baptist must have reminded Jesus of what might happen to him. Fourthly, Jesus seems to have provoked arrest by his disturbance in the temple as well as his messiah-like entry into Jerusalem. These two dramatic events forced his enemies to act. Ultimately, says Kasper, Jesus wanted a conflict with the authorities. Fifthly, the cry from the cross "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" need not be seen as an expression of agonized despair. According to Kasper, it was rather a prayer of sublime confidence, a plea for God to usher in His kingdom. 68 Thus, Jesus' death spells out his whole message. Right to the end he was only interested in God's coming reign. Under the conditions of this age, God's kingdom can only be manifest as love in desolation and life in death. 69 Kasper tries to justify the martyrdom of Jesus, which might have had providential significance. But, would this be consistent with Jesus' eschatological hope?

Writing a generation after the death of Jesus, St. Paul admitted that the theology of the cross was a scandal and a stumbling block for non-Christians. Why? Because Jews of the time had no notion of a crucified Messiah. Perhaps more importantly, Jesus' execution strongly suggested that he had failed as the bearer of the messianic age.

New Testament Christianity tried to cover up the scandal of the crucifixion in four ways:

1) by insisting that Jesus' death was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies;
2) by gradually removing the apocalyptic aspect of Jesus' teachings;
3) by proclaiming the advent of the messianic age at some unpredictable future date; and
4) by reinterpreting the Christian faith in mystical, sacramental and ecclesiastical terms. These tendencies can conflict with one another but all existed in the post-apostolic age.

If Jesus' main purpose was to usher in the long-awaited kingdom of God, it would appear that his career ended with disappointment. To repeat Bultmann's blunt words, the apocalyptic hope of Jesus was not fulfilled. The world still exists. History has refuted Jesus' eschatological mythology. 70

What evidence do we have for such a drastic conclusion? First, the early Christians added an appendix to the ordinary Jewish apocalyptic hope. Whereas Jews assumed that the kingdom would come with the advent of the Messiah, the Christians preached that the Messiah Jesus inaugurated the kingdom but its full realization would take place sometime in the future. In a novel way, they reinterpreted the messianic role to include the earthly career of the Suffering Servant of God and a later appearance of the messianic conquering hero. This shows that the original expectations of Jesus' followers were frustrated.

Secondly, Jesus himself may have been aware of his failure as the eschatological herald, if the words Mark ascribes to him on the cross are authentic. Did Jesus cry out in despair, asking why God had forsaken him? Two factors suggest the historical reliability of Mark's account. For one thing, the text is quoted in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and most scholars are inclined to accept the authenticity of a text if it can be traced back to an Aramaic source. 71 For another thing, such an outcry would never have been invented by the post-Easter church, because its meaning was so embarrassing. If Psalm 22:2 was only an expression of Jesus' trust in God, as many apologists claim, why did Luke omit it in favor of the truly serene verse from another Psalm: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (23:46)? Naturally John also ignores the Markan text, much preferring to portray a majestic Jesus, completely in charge of the situation to the very end. We can therefore assume that Mark's report of the cry of abandonment was historical. As Sobrino admits, Mark would not have dared to put such scandalous words in Jesus' mouth without solid historical basis for doing so. 72 There was nothing beautiful about Jesus' death, for in his 73 eyes the cross represented the death of his cause.

Few theologians will consider the possibility that Jesus' mission did not end in total success. Let us look more closely at two notable exceptions. In his book The Lord, Romano Guardini considers the tragedy of Jesus' rejection by the authorities and then by the people. God's kingdom did not come as it was meant to, because its acceptance or rejection depended upon the response of the Jewish people. From men's freedom came the decision against Jesus.

God's kingdom would have come into full bloom had the people been responsive. The decision against Jesus therefore should be called "the second Fall," Guardini maintains. If the people had accepted Jesus, their yes to God would have cancelled Adam's sin. Because they 74 rejected him, man's fallen condition was sealed afresh.

More recently, Hans Kfing has also accepted the possibility that Jesus died feeling abandoned by his God. At the end, Jesus found himself deserted-left absolutely alone. Even if we do not know for sure how Jesus felt on the cross, it was obvious to the world that he had proclaimed the advent of God's kingdom and this did not come. Jesus claimed to be God's witness yet was left in the lurch. For Jesus, crucifixion meant a helpless, miracle-less and even God-less death. He who had announced the closeness of the kingdom died utterly forsaken 75 by God.

65 Cf. Bultmann's essay in McArthur, p. 163

66 See his Der Exegat als Theologe (1968), pp. 160-170. Catholic scholars H. Kessler and A. Vogtle agree.

67 Isaiah 53:3, 4 "He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows. Surely he hath borne our griefs"; Psalm 69:21 "They gave me also gall for my meat and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink"; Psalm 22:1 "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

68 Jesus was merely reciting a psalm of which Mark quotes the opening words (Psalm 22).

69 W. Kasper, Jesus the Christ (1976), pp. 118-119.

70 R. Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (1958), p. 14.

71 Jeremias, for one, ordinarily places great reliance upon the Ararnaisms of the tradition (cf. New Testament Theology, pp. 3-8).

72 Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads, p. 184.

73 Ibid., p. 218.

74 R. Guardini, The Lord (1954), pp. 208-215.

75 H. Ming, op. cit., pp. 341-342

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