Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
January 6th, 2016 by Joel Watts

(Draft) Proposal for… (Jesus’ Suicide in Galatians)

As with yesterday, this is a draft. Constructive, polite, and wonderful comments only.

ben witherington quote jesus death

Proposal

This volume proposes to draw out a model not yet properly offered. I will attempt to present the death of Jesus not as one who was sacrificed unwillingly; committed suicide in a traditional sense; or suffered martyrdom; but rather as a devotio, albeit a devotio strictly defined against the combined backdrop of Second Temple Judaism, Stoicism, and existing patterns of the Roman devotio.

Defined simply, the devotio, which originated in ancient Roman religion, was a self-sacrificing type of suicide.   Persons who executed devotiones did so neither for nor against a religious or political cause, but rather for a much deeper reason: To produce a significant change in social order that would result in an expected cosmic peace. With respect to Jesus’ death, each of the aforementioned views — sacrifice, suicide, and martyrdom — have been dealt with by scholars; however, no such work yet exists explaining the death of Christ by the model set forth by Roman Stoics and initiated by Decius Mus, Cato the Younger, and the Emperor Otho. Rather, such a view is often misunderstood as a “noble death.”[1]

Further, I will propose death by devotio indicates not only a high Christological self-viewpoint and communal viewpoint, but also, when paired with Judaism, it shows an elevated covenantal viewpoint. Indeed, had Jesus not thought of himself as God’s son or the Davidic messiah, he would not have completed the devotio, since only divine sonship and messianic self-identity can provide adequate motive for engaging in a devotio on behalf of the kingdom of God.

This is why we find this example used in Galatians. This type of self-sacrifice, which repeats itself throughout the New Testament, originates chronologically with Galatians, a text that abundantly features this concept. Prolific, varied atonement models have led to a conflated maelstrom of hermeneutical confusion, and once the tempestuous sea of voices shouting various models is calmly silenced and the faithful reader is left alone to interpret the text, what will emerge — I believe — will be the earliest model for the atonement drawn from one of the earliest New Testament documents.

While the physical result — death — is the same in sacrifice, suicide, martyrdom, and devotio, the purpose and expected outcome are different. For the moment, I will include devotio in the realm of suicide (self-inflicted death but not martyrdom).[2] Furthermore, I will only offer speculation as to the exact outcome of the calculus of life. Belief does not include factual truth and, as yet, we are unable to determine the precise consequence of either ending one’s own life (suicide), or others ending one’s life (sacrifice and martyrdom); therefore, I will speak only to what was said to have happened, or rather, the purpose of each change of reality as intended.

One will find a linguistic theme underpinning much of the New Testament, one which I maintain, is a latent deposition of the devotio. First of all, Paul used passive language in Romans 4.25 to describe Jesus as one who “delivered up for our sins” without strictly naming who or what led to this.[3] Likewise, in a statement clearly imitating Emperor Otho, Caiaphas hinted that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice (John 11.50) although Jesus earlier assured readers of the account that this sacrifice happened because he allowed and initiated it (John 10.18).

Further, we may read the startling example of Hebrews 10.19–20 which have long been recognized as connected, at least in verbiage, to the story of Decius Mus. Of Mus, Lucius Annaeus Florus wrote: “alter quasi monitu deorum capite velato primam ante aciem Dis Manibus se devoverit, ut in confertissima se hostium tela jaculatus novum ad victoriam iter sanguinis sui limite aperiret.”[4] This statement parallels the sacrifice found in the Hebrews passage, in that, just as Decius Mus sacrificed himself so that the Roman armies would have a literal way opened to victory against the Latin armies, so Christ’s death and self-sacrifice in the midst of an otherwise hopeless situation opened up a spiritual way of victory against the hordes of hell, in order that believers might enter the presence of God. Even in light of these examples, in order to really begin the investigative work into the devotio as an early model, if not the progenitor of other models, we must turn to one of the earliest documented evidences of the death of Jesus: Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia.[5]

Concerning the dating of early Pauline correspondence, there is some dispute as to whether or not Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians before he composed Galatians. Both letters seem to have an early date. Ultimately, however, this discussion is irrelevant to our discussion for two reasons. First, on one hand Galatians was written to a regional group of churches while on the other hand 1 Thessalonians was written to a single church. Thus, Galatians exercised greater influence on a larger number of churches. Secondly, Galatians dealt with the foundation of the Pauline Gospel—Christ and him crucified—and with several topics directly related to the fruit of that foundation. 1 Thessalonians, by comparison, did not. Rather, with a much narrower scope, it exclusively dealt with a single issue not unrelated to the foundation of the Pauline Gospel—the return of Jesus. So, ultimately, even if the writing of 1 Thessalonians predated Galatians, Galatians was still the first of Paul’s writings to work exclusively with the death of Christ on the cross, its meaning for those who follow him, and topics that naturally flowed out of that foundational topic. Because of this fortunate placement of Galatians (as an early letter and as one speaking directly to the meaning of the death of Jesus), I will focus only on it for this work.


[1]          For example, see the work by Friedrich Avemarie and Jan Willem van Henten, Martyrdom and Noble Death: Selected Texts from Graeco-Roman, Jewish and Christian Antiquity. (Routledge, 2002) and Arthur Droge and James Tabor, A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom Among Christians and Jews in Antiquity (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992). I will cover the scholarship on “noble death” as a subset of self-sacrifice” as viewed by both Romans and Jewish in subsequent chapters.

[2]          Jarvis Williams briefly examines devotio as a background to the Maccabean martyrdom, which is his proposed background to Paul’s theology of atonement; however, while he can admit that the act has certain elements (expiatation, appeasement, aversion of wrath, and a victim that is more than human) he passes over it as a similarity to martyrdom (Maccabean Martyr Traditions, 35–37, cf. 43.).

[3]          For more on how this verse and how passive language plays a part in Paul’s apologetic, see Jonathan A. Linebaugh, God, Grace, and Righteousness in Wisdom of Solomon and Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Texts in Conversation (Novum Testamentum, Supplements) and Wendy Dabourne, Purpose and Cause in Pauline Exegesis: Romans 1.16 and 4.25 and a New Approach to the Letters

[4]          Epitome 1.14.3, see Harold W. Attridge and Helmut Koester, The Epistle to the Hebrews: a Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Fortress Press, 1989) 285n26. See also, Marcus Dods, “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” in The Expositor’s Greek Testament: Commentary, Vol. IV. (George H. Doran Company, n.d.), 4346.

[5]          For the sake of brevity, I will follow Longenecker’s date and audience measurements. See Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (vol. 41; Word Biblical Commentary; Word, Incorporated, 1998), lxx and lxxii—lxxxvii. He posits Galatians as earlier than 1 Thessalonians and written to communities in southern Galatia.

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. 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).

Comments

2 Responses to “(Draft) Proposal for… (Jesus’ Suicide in Galatians)”
  1. JOHN K. OSWALD, ESQUIRE says

    Heretic. You are a heretic. There are far safer ways to garner attention than to attack the fundamental tenets of the world’s largest religion. Crack eggs on your head on YouTube; run naked through Times Square; ANYTHING other than the drivel of your “posts”. You remind me of that weird guy in the back of the class “espousing” outrageous “observations” to impress the cute blonde and/or the weak minded. That was college as I assume you are a grown man.

    Your arguments are specious and ignore vast bodies of scriptural text that undermine your suppositions. Repeat as necessary. Do you really believe you are up to the challenge posited? Really? Some two-bit hack educated at the U. of the Free State is going to undermine 3500 years of theology? Seriously? The pretensions and hubris are quit laughable. You play with Holy fire and you have no inkling of the burn withal–here and Hereafter.

    Don’t quit your day job. Save the critical thinking for the real theologians, you know, Augustine, Calvin and modern-day Sproul.

    –John K. Oswald, Esq.

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