A Novelistic Life of Jesus IIIJanuary 6, 2010
The Death-And Beyond
Jesus must have had many friends and admirers in the city, so the choice of venue was an embarras de richesse. His instructions to the disciples on how to find the house he selected were cryptic: he sent two disciples ahead with the words,
“Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you: follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the householder, ‘The teacher says, “Where is my guest room [refectory, katalyma] where I am to eat the passover with my disciples?”‘
And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready” (Mark 14:13-15). Probably Jesus did not wish Judas to know the site till the last moment, so as to avoid any early warning to the Sanhedrin, whereupon he might be arrested. The water-carrier was in all likelihood a servant sent to fetch fresh water from the Pool of Siloam, by way of substitute for the cistern water in normal domestic use. Eventually, the upper room of Zion, where the disciples gathered on returning from the Mount of Olives after the ascension, came to be regarded as the scene of this Last Supper.
A New Covenant
Then, on the last evening of his life, Jesus announced the solemn beginning of a new covenant between God and the world, a covenant made in his death, with his life offered up as a sacrifice of expiation — along the lines of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:12, his soul “poured out unto death” for “the sins of many.”
A crisis stage was coming: an ordeal that would mean Jesus’ own death but also the persecution of his followers; intensified suffering for Israel which had, in the main, rejected the public offer of salvation; and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The crisis was to be resolved, however, in the triumph of the Son — referred to by Jesus as “the day of the Son of Man,” a phrase that is probably the counterpart in the private teaching of the term “the reign of God” in the public proclamation.
To anticipate such an exaltation, Jesus must have supposed for himself, after his ordeal, a stupendously transcendent condition, which would be constituted by, on the one hand, his resurrection and ascension, and on the other, his final parousia, the second coming. The two were evidently telescoped in his awareness. The moment of the parousia was, to his consciousness, extraordinarily close. By his work, he was the bearer of God’s lordship over time. The whole time of the redemption was as it were concentrated in his person, since where he acts the terms on which the salvational future will proceed are already laid down.
During his disciples’ missionary journeys, he had seen “Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18), even though that final victory remained to be accomplished. The disciples shared something of Jesus’ consciousness in this regard. Their confidence in the imminence of his return coexisted perfectly happily with their knowledge that Jesus had established an “apostolic succession” for his Church, and had promised to intercede with the Father, so that the Spirit, in whose power he had worked and taught, might come to counsel the apostolic fellowship, both defending them against the last, peculiarly vicious death-throes of the evil powers in their antagonism towards the Church, and leading them into all truth, bringing to mind all he had said to them (what we now call the “development of doctrine”). To ordinary consciousness it would be contradictory both to expect the final outcome of history and to provide for an indefinite future — but the disciples did not by now have an ordinary consciousness. They had, instead, begun to share in Jesus’ consciousness.
At the Last Supper, Jesus ordered his disciples to celebrate the new covenant, to be made between God and humankind in his blood, by a sacramental re-presentation of his sacrificial death. Equipped with this rite, for as long as the ordeal lasted they would themselves be the eschatological temple in its earthly aspect, the house built on rock, which the power of Hades would try in vain to overcome. The Church, which the disciples constituted in relation to Jesus, would be the mystery of the kingdom, the reign of God, the day of the Son of Man, insofar as that kingdom, reign, day, are already manifested in time. Until the definitive ingathering of the saved at the end of time (the plenary coming of the new heaven and the new earth) the redemptive purposes of Jesus would be incorporated and continued in this community.
Having instituted the sacrificial meal of his own memorial, and sung a hymn, the Messiah went out with his friends onto the Mount of Olives (more precisely, into a garden just across the Cedron, on its lower slopes, an olive orchard where the Gethsemani church stands today). After his agony, endured while the disciples largely slept, noises and lights announced the arrival of the betrayer.
Tradition locates the betrayal in the grotto on the edge of the garden, possibly where the eight waited, and the three together with Jesus returned when’ Judas and the guards approached. Whereas Mark and Matthew give the impression that the high priest and the elders had merely collected a motley crew with “swords and staves” to apprehend him, Luke and John make it more official: they were Jewish temple police, though John uses a Roman military term. Jesus was taken for a preliminary private hearing of the case against him before the high priest Annas, father-in-law of the reigning high priest of the year, Caiaphas. Only in the morning could a proper judicial sentence be passed by the Sanhedrin, and that in the Temple precincts. In the courtyard of the high priest’s house, however, there took place an event recorded by all the evangelists: Peter’s denial that he knew Jesus, and his subsequent tears of repentance.
The Sanhedrin condemned Jesus for blasphemy, but in order to win over Pilate stressed the political menace implicit in a Jewish Messiah. As the superscription on the cross — “The King of the Jews” — shows; Jesus was condemned as a rebel against Roman rule. The hearing took place, and judgment was given in the praetorium — either the procurator’s palace (originally built by Herod the Great) or the Antonia fortress (also Herodian) where the Via Dolorosa begins today, close by the Franciscan monastery of the scourging of the Lord. According to one tradition at least, it was on the forecourt of the Antonia that Jesus was shown to the people: “Behold the Man!”
There he was judged, mocked, crowned with thorns, and scourged while Pilate ceremoniously washed his hands. Though Pilate was seemingly far from convinced that Jesus deserved the death penalty, he swallowed his scruples under the combined pressure of the religious authorities, the ever-hostile tetrarch, Herod, whom he consulted, and the Jerusalem crowd, anxious, in all probability, for their economic position (largely dependent as that was on the employment and prosperity generated by the Temple, whose supersession Jesus had predicted). In the account given by John, the timing of Pilate’s judgment is significant.
“In condemning Jesus at noon, the very hour when the Passover lambs began to be killed in the Temple precincts, Pilate fulfills at the end of the Gospel the word spoken about Jesus at the beginning by John the Baptist, identifying him as the lamb of God who would take away the world’s sin.”[ R. Brown, The Death of the Messiah (London, 1994) 1.34.]
He was led out to Golgotha, the “place of the skull.” During the time of the two Jewish wars, the memory of this place — essentially an abandoned quarry — would be preserved. The emperor Constantine cleared away the pagan temple erected over this “cave of the Redeemer” and built there the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which later excavation shows to have been surrounded by rock tombs. Today within the walls of the Old City, in its own time Golgotha was outside the city wall — but close enough for people to see, and reflect upon, the crucifixion victims. The date was, in all probability, Friday, 7 April (14 Nisan) of the year 30 of what would eventually be called the Christian era.
Crucifixion was a widespread penalty in antiquity; among the Romans it was used chiefly on slaves, violent criminals, and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces. Valued for its deterrent effect, it was also an expression of sadism and the lust for) revenge. The public display of a naked victim in a prominent place was linked in the Jewish mind with human sacrifice; hence the horror expressed in Deuteronomy 21:23 at the very thought of such a victim. In this context, the crucified Messiah was a lived demonstration of the solidarity of the love of God with those tortured and put to death by human cruelty.
As we have seen, the significance of that death in Jesus’ own mind was strictly salvational. It had absolutely nothing of the character of political adventure. Jesus uses the political significance of his situation, and the possible political consequences of his actions (e.g., the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, mounted on an ass), so as to secure his rejection on his own terms. Only such rejection could set him free to be the Messiah according to the very truth of God’s self-revelation. He had foreseen this outcome, and, though dreading it in itself, also welcomed it as the crucial turning-point in the ushering in of the reign of God.
Jesus’ body was laid in a “new tomb” by Joseph of Arimathea, a figure otherwise unmentioned in the Gospels. Though privately buried, the corpse of Jesus, which, according to Israel’s sacred law was accursed, could not be allowed to contaminate other corpses in a family grave. Given the need for speedy burial before the Sabbath, the choice of a hitherto unused tomb, close to the site of the execution, was understandable. It appears to have been a shaft tomb of a distinctive first century type.
The body was laid in an antechamber, wrapped in linen sweetened with spices. Jesus’ corpse was anointed royally, according to John, for he has Joseph and Nicodemus use a simply enormous quantity of myrrh and aloes. Apparently, though, Joseph ran out of time for the full process of embalming; this was noted by various women disciples who looked on, the Twelve having scattered. The tomb was sealed by a circular stone. The spot would eventually be cleared, and the rock cut away to allow access and, not least, scope for building; by the late third century the actual tomb would be wholly encased in a round church of its own. But this would dignify no sacred remains. For, in all the Synoptic accounts, on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene and some other women went with fresh embalming materials to the tomb of Jesus and found the stone rolled away. A young man (or two, sometimes presented “angelogically” as a divine messenger or messengers) explained, “He is raised; he is not here.”
The resultant resurrection faith is linked to the events of the ministry for two reasons. First, it confirms the claim of authority made by the pre-Easter Jesus, and second, it reveals the latter’s unity with God, and so God’s unique presence in him. After his death, and counter to all natural possibility, Jesus’ disciples experienced him as returning to them. At the first Easter they encountered him with all the characteristics of a real human being, only now he was beyond the common frontiers of human experience as though in a new life. They felt obliged to regard his personality as somehow continuous with that of God himself, and, though strict monotheists (believers in one God alone), worshipped him with the titles “Lord” and “God.” For his part, he finalized their instruction on continuing his mission until the Easter encounters ceased with the overwhelming spiritual experience of Pentecost: the pouring out of the Spirit of God, now experienced as the Spirit of both Father and Son.
The Christian Religion Begins
The Christian religion thus began when, all human hopes, enthusiasm, and comradeship annihilated, the disciples of Jesus were involved in certain events on the morning after the Sabbath of his entombment in a garden outside Jerusalem, and either concurrently or at some subsequent point by the Sea of Galilee, in an upper room in Jerusalem, and on the road to an unimportant Judaean village called Emmaus.
The Catholic Church, as a reality that may be studied by the historian, began with an empty tomb. Whatever construction the historian may put on the fact, it started with an extraordinary transformation of the broken and distraught friends and disciples of the crucified. They were changed into men and women blazing with confidence that God, in a manner beyond the gropings and imaginings of the human spirit, had “visited” (i.e., acted upon) history. It began with some such words, reported by the eyewitnesses, as “I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen as he said” (Matthew 28:5-6); “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen” (Luke 24:5).
The truth-claims of Catholic Christianity are those of an interpretation of history. We are invited to say of this history — which the Church lives by repeating it in preaching, in the sacraments, and in the prayer whereby she communes with her risen master — whether it is based on a mistake or is just an insoluble enigma, or whether the career of Jesus was in fact extended, by the grace of a power thus disclosed as the Spirit of his Father, into a new and limitless future with God, a future in which our human nature has at last found its hidden meaning, thus making superfluous all humankind’s other faiths and ideologies.
To the critical reader the discrepancies in the scriptural accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus have sometimes seemed as notable as their points of contact. Yet without straining the evidence, some kinds of order may be introduced into the apparent chaos. For instance, all the gospel accounts narrate the same basic sequence of events, though they differ on their location. The same elements are always there: a situation where Jesus’ followers are bereft, an appearance of Jesus, his greeting, their recognition, his word of command or mission. Moreover, the geographical complexity of the appearances — Galilee or Jerusalem — is not so off-putting as it might seem.
The Jerusalem appearances, so Père M. J. Lagrange suggested, were chiefly intended to convince and reassure the disciples. The Galilee appearances were principally meant to link their minds to memories of the past. For the risen Christ is the glorified earthly Jesus, just as the earthly Jesus was the one destined to be the glorified risen Christ. There is no contradiction between the historian’s Jesus and the Church’s Jesus (whom we shall be contemplating in a moment).
If the majority of the resurrection appearances took place in Galilee, why then did the apostles return to Jerusalem? Because as observant Jews, they would naturally have gone up to the holy city for the next pilgrimage feast, “Weeks” or Pentecost. It was in Jerusalem, on that feast, that there took place an overwhelming manifestation of the Spirit they had received from the risen Christ. Now the Twelve through Peter began to proclaim the good news they perceived in faith. God had fulfilled his promises to Israel in Jesus whose crucifixion was not a defeat, for God had raised him and thus stamped his message and life with the seal of divine approval.
Agnosticism About The Resurrection
An ultimate agnosticism about the resurrection requires one to consign to the realm of the inexplicable the origins of the major transformation of the Greco-Roman world whose heirs we are. If we are not prepared to countenance the Church’s own account of her beginning, with the reversal that turned Jesus’ disciples, that smashed and headless group, into missionary apostles, we shall be hard pressed to make sense of the new Christian element running like quicksilver through the Mediterranean basin and beyond. Some would have it, with Goethe, that “They are celebrating the resurrection of the Lord for they themselves are resurrected.” But what “they” (the disciples) in fact experienced was fear and doubt, and what awakened joy and jubilation was something other than themselves. They were the ones marked out by death, but the crucified and buried one was alive. We can put it like this: Those who survived him were the dead; the dead one was the Living.
The triumphant return to life of the Lord Jesus has been deemed “not proven” by many who have approached it with an historian’s eye. Yet the faith-account handed down in the living witness of the’ Church of all generations remains a plausible construction of the evidence. Moreover, the kind of event that faith-witness depicts is, importantly, one open to public scrutiny, one that would submit to falsification. The discovery of the skeletal remains of Jesus — along the lines of a celebrated novel by Piers Paul Read-would surely falsify (i.e., disprove) the Christian faith. It is, on an orthodox view of that faith, an intrinsic feature of the divine sacrifice by which the Father sent his Son on his mission of liberation that God freely made himself vulnerable to human beings, even in the very truth-claims of his own self-revelation.
There was once a man, within historical times, who, as a child of the Jewish people, knew only of one God of heaven and earth, of a unique Father in heaven, and stood in reverential awe before this heavenly Father; a man whose meat was to do the will of this Father, who from his earliest youth in good and bad had sought and loved this will alone, whose whole life was one prayer; a man, further, whose whole being was so firmly united with this Divine will, that by its omnipotence he healed the sick and restored the dead to life; a man, finally, who was so intimately and exclusively dedicated to this will, that he never swerved from it, so that not even the slightest consciousness of sin ever oppressed him, so that never a cry for penance and forgiveness passed his lips, so that even in dying he begged pardon not for himself but for others.
And this man from the intimacy of his union with God could say to afflicted mortals, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” And it was this holy man, utterly subject as he was to God throughout his whole life, absorbed as he was in God, awestruck as he stood before him, who asserted, as if it were the most natural and obvious thing in the world, that he was to be the judge of the world at the last day, that he was the suffering servant of God, nay more, that he was the only-begotten Son of God and consubstantial with him, and could say of himself, “I and the Father are one.”[K. Adam, The Son of God (New York, 1934) 203]
The mystery of Jesus is so deep that it has taken a number of New Testament interpretations of it to constitute the New Testament canon, to satisfy the Church that she has in the Scriptures an adequate written basis for her future. Theologians, mystics, poets, and artists down the ages have all made their attempts to plumb Jesus’ mystery. Of course, part of Jesus’ elusiveness comes from the fact that we today do not share the dominant ideas and symbols of the particular culture in which he was born. But if a redemptive incarnation were to take place at all, it had to happen in some particular culture, and so there had to be a risk — and more than a risk, a moral certainty — that with distance in space and time the form of the redemptive incarnation would become harder to identify with and, so to understand. The role of the Paraclete or Counselor, promised by Jesus, is to overcome this problem by leading the disciples into all truth, which means first and foremost all the essential truth about Jesus Christ.
To the Catholic Christian, the Jesus Christ of the Church’s dogma is this infallible portrait of the incarnate Redeemer, an interpretation of the New Testament materials made under the leading of the Holy Spirit, so that the community of the kingdom, constructed on the basis of the Holy Eucharist, will appreciate the essentials of that person who is the kingdom’s center and really present in its Eucharistic feast. The Christ of dogma, the Christ of the Church, is an unerring interpretation of what was given in and with the Jesus of history We seek the history, therefore (using the tools of scholarship), in the context of the Church’s tradition, just as we also seek the personal origin of the Church’s tradition within scholarly history. If we differentiate the two it is only for the purpose of revealing more clearly their interconnection.
Once … we accept the faith perspective of the authors of the New Testament and the judgment of the Church which has canonized this apostolic faith response as a witness guaranteed by God, a new avenue of knowing the reality of Jesus is opened up for us. This faith is then pursued not merely as a safeguard against reducing the figure of Jesus to pre-fabricated clichés, but as a positive hermeneutical tool which can answer the question raised by the quest for the historical Jesus: who is this man?
We also begin to understand that it is not a great tragedy for us — in fact it might be providential — that we do not have personal writings by Jesus himself (or transcripts of his discourses for that matter). God’s intention was to bring a community of faith around Jesus so that the understanding of Jesus would become inseparable from accepting the witness of this archetypal community. In fact, the reality of Jesus, “who he was and what he intended,” or more precisely, who he was in God’s plan of salvation and what God revealed to us through his person, deeds, and words, becomes accessible to us only through the divinely guaranteed documents of the apostolic Church, that is, the New Testament.
If Jesus wanted to reach all humankind through a community whose faith, life, and ritual are to continue the faith, life, and ritual of this archetypal apostolic community, then the fact that Jesus himself authored no book or letter makes complete sense. If Jesus’ reality could be reached without the faith response embodied in the documents of the apostolic Church, an individualistic relationship between isolated individual believers and Jesus would become a distinct possibility. Then our faith would not necessarily be an ecclesial faith.[R. Kereszty, "Historical Research, Theological Inquiry, and the Reality of Jesus: Reflections on the Method of J. P. Meier," Communio 19 (1992) 595.]