My answer to who killed Jesus

I had hoped that this would be picked up by HuffPo Religion, seeing as they invited it. Oh well. I’m not going to waste it. This is limited only to a 1000 words. 

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Did God kill Jesus? That seems to be the proposition Bernard Starr is stating.

In my recent work, Mimetic Criticism and the Gospel of Mark, my attempt was to uncover the literary sources of the Gospel. In one particular part, the accusation of Jesus (Mark 14.53-65), I show the use of 2 Kings 18.19-37 as Mark’s literary source — the genesis of his imagination. This latter pericope involves a theological struggle between the Assyrians and the Israelites. Sennacherib’s mouthpiece, Rabshakeh, states without a doubt YHWH is as impotent as the gods of other nations trampled over by the might of Assyria. Each time Rabshakeh talks, there is no answer either from YHWH or Hezekiah. There is silence — a theological silence to be sure.

Mark’s use of this literary source is not accidental, as nothing is when a writer picks up his or her pen to craft well a story. Steven Runge, in his work on Discourse Greek, states unequivocally “choice implies meaning.” If this is true for words and word placement, this is true for literary sources as well.

So, what might the use of a scene where YHWH is clearly on trial mean for Mark? I stand with other scholars who would see in the narrative of Jesus a mythologized account of Israel. We know Matthew did.  After all, he gave a certain rhyme pulled from the Jewish sacred writings to Mark’s reasonings (assuming Matthew used Mark because there is no Q). Mark was written during a time of severe crisis — following the end of the Jewish Revolt and the subsequent destruction of the Temple, when it appeared God had forsaken Israel.  Reading Mark in this setting tells us something rather breathtaking if we are able to hear it.

Mark sees the death of Jesus not caused by God, but as a challenge directly to God. Mark is writing in this instance to put God on trial for abandoning Israel in her struggle to attain independence. God has abandoned Mark, his community, and Israel through his abandonment of Jesus. God did not kill Jesus. God’s abandonment allowed Jesus — and thus all of Israel — to suffer torture even to the point of death. Perhaps God was “deep in thought or busy preparing for travelling. Or maybe he needs to be awakened from sleep.”

I use this because in these final hours of Jesus there are echoes of Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al. After all, where is God when Jesus calls for him from the cross (Mark 15.34; 1 Kings 18.16-40)? Indeed, throughout the Gospel of Mark, God only appears twice although there is plenty of conversation about God. The voice of God is heard at the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1.9-11) and once more at the Transfiguration (Mark 9.2-8). When Jesus needs to do something, such as forgiving sins (mark 2.7-9), Jesus does it in of himself without the assistance of God. God is absent from the Gospel of Mark except to tell everyone to listen to Jesus. This startling fact is remedied in later Gospels, but for Mark God is placed on trial — a fact clearly seen in the trial of Jesus.

So, the question really remains — who killed Jesus? If we read the Gospels poorly, as with what is labeled “face value” or “plain sense”, we will always have to decide between the three usual culprits: God, the Romans, or the Jewish leaders.

To state that God killed Jesus is to supplement what the Gospel says for what later, better-educated theologians say. To state the Romans did is to read the Gospel only as a political tractate where Jesus is suddenly the political messiah and Rome is extracting some sort of revenage. To give culpability to the Jews is to wreak havoc not only upon the Jewish authors and audiences of the Gospel, but so too Jews throughout the centuries and even us Gentiles today.

Instead, we must understand the Gospels as ancient biographies, stories more interested in truth than fact. The Historical Jesus died, for whatever reasons we may surmise (I personally believe Jesus died because he was thought to be, if not was, a social bandit), hung on a cross by Romans. Paul says Jesus died to bring in the new covenant that the Apostle himself barely understood. But, when it comes to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus does not die to appease a terrible cosmic overseer who has had his honor slighted. Nor is Jesus killed because the Jews hated him and his message. The Empire did not kill Jesus for his statements again them either.

Jesus died because God had abandoned Israel, leaving his people to fend for themselves. Jesus died because sometimes we create our own problems and we must suffer the consequences. Jesus died because he chose a path that led to the cross and did his level best to annoy everyone else on the way.

There are times we can “take initiative with God and so develop over against God the ego-strength that is necessary for responsible faith (Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, 103).” This is what Jesus, or at least Mark’s Jesus, did. Because God had clearly abandoned (or was abandoning) Israel, Jesus decided to make him notice once more.

No one killed Jesus. Jesus died.

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Post By Joel Watts (10,049 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

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1 thought on My answer to who killed Jesus

  1. Bernard Starr is late with his claim. Christian blogger Adrian Warnock made it seven years ago, as I reported at the time: Did God kill Jesus? Adrian’s post is no longer accessible. I wonder if he still stands by what he wrote then?

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