The Marginality of the Cross

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 6, 2004-2005 - Pages 23-38

Has the significance of the cross in the New Testament has been overrated? Can it be that, at least in significant portions of the New Testament, we have become used to reading familiar texts through the even more familiar lens of Western atonement theologies? It is hard sometimes to remember that doctrines have grown from the seeds of individual verses and that, by themselves, those verses have a more modest meaning. I grant that in most of the Pauline epistles and 1 Peter we find a great, even a central, focus on the redemption wrought through the crucifixion death of Jesus. But I wonder if another look at the gospels will support a similar evaluation of the “cruciality” of the cross there. I suspect not. It will be a question of what significance the cross has, for the sheer amount of space all the gospels devote to the Passion certainly means the event was important. But are the gospels based on a Pauline-type (or later orthodox) belief in world atonement? Not exactly. For my contention will be that the gospels place the significance of the cross in theological contexts largely alien to subsequent Christian theology.


Mark: “Rim Crater of Redemption”

Theodore J. Weeden, in one of those truly ground-breaking books in New Testament scholarship, Mark: Traditions in Conflict,[1] sets forth the case that Mark has taken over a then-familiar pattern of Jesus-faith that cast Jesus in the role of a divine man (theios aner), an inspired superman or demigod.[2] There are many such characters in the religious literature of the time, including Empedocles, Pythagoras, Apollonius of Tyana, even Moses as the Hellenistic Jews Josephus and Philo of Alexandria depict him. Connected to such a conception of Christ would have been a charismatic, triumphalistic “enthusiasm” such as that discerned in first-century Corinth by Ernst Käsemann[3] and others. For them the apocalyptic glory of the Kingdom of God was already present in the miraculous powers at work in Jesus and in Christians as they practiced supernatural arts of healing and prophecy. In the fashion of later messianic movements like that of Jacob Frank in the seventeenth century,[4] such Christians may have been libertines, regarding the prohibitions of the Torah as obsolete in an age of perfection when nothing could any longer count as sin. Martyrdom would take such Christians by surprise, and Gnostic Christians considered themselves fully entitled to engage in dissimulation[5] to avoid suffering to which they viewed themselves as superior and thus exempt in Christ.[6]

Weeden acknowledged that Mark’s Jesus is still a superman, walking on water, silencing demons, feeding the multitudes with heavenly supplies. But Weeden sees Mark as periodically trying to bring the hot air balloon of such hero-cult faith safely down to earth or, to change the metaphor, to recall Icarus from his high-flying proximity to the sun before it was too late. Weeden’s Mark took seriously the martyrdom facing Christians and feared, like the writer to the Hebrews, that the close approach of martyrdom would shatter superficial faith, puncture the balloon. He fears for the fair-weather believers he builds into the interpretation of the Parable of the Sower (or, as some call it, of the Soils, Mark 4:16-17). And so Weeden’s Mark pauses the gospel train to glory periodically to warn the reader that the way of discipleship to Jesus is the way of suffering, the way of the cross.

The most important such pressing of the brakes occurs in the Caesarea Philippi scene of Peter’s confession (Mark 8:27-38). No sooner does Peter confess his faith in Jesus as the Christ than Jesus tells him the Son of Man must soon be martyred, though he will also rise from the dead. There follows the summons to the crowd (really, to Mark’s readers, since no one on the scene could have made the connection)[7] that if you are to follow Jesus, you must take up your own cross and follow him to your own Golgotha.

Mark’s apocalypse (chapter 13) goes into some detail outlining the persecutions Christian readers may expect if they are faithful (verses 9-13). The storm clouds have gathered in Mark’s day, and he is trying to prepare immature Christians for the storm, lest they become disillusioned by it, like a child who repudiates faith in God when his prayers for a pony go unanswered.[8] To borrow a term from Reinhold Niebuhr, Weeden’s Mark was trying to sketch a Christology of “Christian Realism.” But it is important to note that even on Weeden’s reading, the heightened import of the cross has nothing really to do with soteriology. Rather, the cross is a model for dedicated discipleship in a time of martyrdom.

In a sense, Weeden comes close to positing not a mere change of emphasis in Mark’s retelling of the gospel tale, but to making Mark the inventor of the Passion Narrative. This is because he argues[9] in great and convincing detail that, of the New Testament evangelists, Mark and John evidence such striking parallels with Josephus’ account of the arrest, interrogation, flogging, and eventual death of the Jerusalem prophet Jesus ben-Ananias (Wars of the Jews 6.5.3) that they simply must have known the story and even borrowed it for Jesus. Mark and John must have known of previous preaching of “Christ crucified” (such as we read in the Pauline epistles, albeit--and this is significant--with absolutely no narrative or socio-political context). But when it came time to tell a story, Mark and John borrowed one that lay ready to hand, that of “another Jesus” (2 Corinthians 11:4).

The pre-Markan version of Jesus as a divine hero would have contained some form of a trial and martyrdom, and the presence of such plot elements in no way infringes on the nature of the narrative as that of a triumphant superman who cannot be kept down. Indeed, the trial and execution of Jesus would make sense (I think most sense) as the darkness before the dawn. Just as Apollonius easily escapes the ire of Domitian (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 8.8), so Jesus finally eludes the grasp of Pontius Pilate. Whether Jesus was originally shown surviving the cross, as several data in the gospels imply (see my Deconstructing Jesus)[10] or as rising from genuine death hardly matters. Even if truly dead, he is dead for only a day and a half. The Passion Narrative then, does not in itself imply a focus on the saving death of Jesus Christ. It is rather that predictable portion of a heroic saga in which the initial glory of the hero is set aside by a temporary reversal of fortune so that his final victory does not seem to come too cheap and easily.

It seems to me that we are in the presence of atonement talk only at the Last Supper, Mark 14:24, “This is my blood of the [new?] covenant, which is poured out for many” and its twin text, Mark 10:45, “For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” What we have here, as Loisy pointed out, is a piece of cult liturgy, not historical memory.[11] But what is the intended scope of this sacrifice? Without reviewing the whole history of the tradition, it is sufficient here to note that the language of “giving one’s life as a ransom for many” is martyrdom language familiar from Hellenistic Judaism and expresses the hope that the sufferings of the persecuted righteous may avail in the eyes of God to expiate the sins of those unfaithful Jews whose laxity has caused God to send the persecution (2 Maccabees 7:38, “Through me and my brothers, may there be an end to the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.” Also 4 Maccabees 6:28-29, “Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.”). To find here a statement that Jesus means to die for the human race as a whole, and in future ages, is gratuitous. The scope of the language, which is all we have to go on, is more restricted and modest.

“Blood of the covenant” represents a midrashic attempt to understand the death of Jesus as a sacrifice performed to seal or renew a covenant between God and the Jewish people, as in Exodus 24:8. Such a theology is spelled out in great detail in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Matthew uses similar language, derived from Mark, and the whole structure of his gospel justifies it, as we will see in the next section. But in Mark, it falls like a bolt from the blue. It makes no more sense in the narrative context than does the fleeing away naked of the young man in the Garden (Mark 14:51-52). The formula seems to have been carried along by Mark since he found it present in the bit of liturgy known to him from his congregation’s sacraments. But he does not bother working it into the plot or even into the teaching of Jesus as he presents it elsewhere.

Is the cross as a saving deed pivotal for Mark? Even important? Perhaps not. At most, to borrow Albert Schweitzer’s metaphor for the marginality of Justification by Faith in Pauline theology,[12] the cross in Mark is at best a “rim-crater” on the literary lunar surface.


Matthew: Sanguinary Seal

Matthew’s gospel, a wide-ranging expansion of Mark’s, provides a theological context, if only by suggestion, in which Mark’s eucharistic utterance makes sense. His Jesus elaborates: “This is my blood of the [new?] covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). We should love to know the precise significance of the added phrase “for forgiveness of sins.” Does it imply something deeper, a la Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews, about the expunging of the moral failures and flaws of the contrite heart, in contrast to the apparently purely ritual expiation of ritual trespasses entailed in the Mosaic sacrifice system? If the sacrifice of the blood of Jesus is taken to inaugurate a new covenant, as in several manuscripts of both Matthew and Mark, would this added moral and/or psychological dimension be the relevant novelty? It might be that the purification of Gentile sinfulness (Galatians 2:15) is in view here. As Sam K. Williams argued in Jesus’ Death as Saving Event,[13] the death of Jesus may first have taken on sacrificial coloring in the minds of Hellenistic Jewish Christians as a means whereby God might make the newly converted Gentiles (reeking of ham sandwiches and shrimp cocktails) acceptable to himself, something Jewish believers did not need, having already grown up in the covenant with its purifying taboos and sacrifices. Such a question must have engaged Matthew’s attention, given his own identity as a Hellenized (trilingual) Jew committed to the niceties of Torah, probably resident in Antioch, the hub of the Gentile Mission.

The echo we hear in Mark/Matthew of the Mosaic saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant which Yahweh has made with you in accordance with all these commandments” (Exodus 24:8) makes ample sense in Matthew because of the Matthean “new Moses” theme. As is well known, Matthew likes to depict Jesus issuing revelation atop a mountain, whence he delivers the Sermon on the Mount (Q apparently gave no location, since Luke has a Sermon on the Plain) and issues the Great Commission. He is transfigured like Moses on the mountain top, a scene borrowed from Mark, but brought into closer conformity to its Mosaic prototype by having Jesus’ face (not just his clothing) glow like the sun (compare Mark 9:3; Matthew 17:2; Exodus 34:29). And if Moses was the mediator of the original Pentateuch, Matthew deems it scarcely less fitting for Jesus to be the messenger of a new one. This is why he divides (somewhat arbitrarily) the teachings of Jesus into five great sections: the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), the Mission Charge (10), the Parables (12), the Manual of Discipline (18-19), and the Denunciation of the Pharisees/Olivet Discourse (23-25). Given its inconsistently topical organization, we may feel there ought to have been a Hexateuch, dividing the last section into two, but the fact that Matthew joined the last two topics in such a forced manner only shows how determined he was for the thing to come out to five. It is to these five “books” of the teaching of Jesus that we must look for the content intended in the Great Commission: “Make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you” (28:19-20). Furthermore, the wording of the Commission at this point again recalls that of Moses’ phrase “in accordance with all these commandments” (Exodus 24:8).

In view of these Mosaic parallels, especially to Exodus 24:8, surely we are to understand Jesus’ eucharistic saying in Matthew as a counterpart to the Exodus prototype, “Behold the blood of the covenant.” The parallel may go even further as we will shortly see, but for the present let us note that the general trend of the parallel is to appropriate Jeremiah’s theme of the post-Exilic New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), whence also the addition “for forgiveness of sins” also probably comes: “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Thus it is a matter of indifference, at least in Matthew, whether the original text had Jesus speak of the covenant or of the new covenant. The point is the same.

A final Matthean parallel to the scene of Exodus 24:8 must claim our attention. To what, precisely, was Moses directing the attention of the Israelites on that fateful day when he bade them “Behold the blood of the covenant”? Back up just a little, if you please: “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, ‘All that Yahweh has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which Yahweh has made with you in accordance with all these commandments” (Exodus 24:7-8). These words seem to possess a familiar ring, and yet what a surprise to realize where their counterparts occur! “Once Pilate realized he was getting nowhere, only that a riot was brewing, he took water and washed his hands in plain view, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood! See to it yourselves!’ And all the people said, ‘His blood be on us and all our children!’” (Matthew 27:24-25).

On any traditional reading, Matthew is signing the death warrant of future generations of “Christ-killing” Jews. They have invited divine reprisal, albeit unwittingly, as if a sincere but mistaken person should exclaim, “And may God strike me dead if I’m wrong!” Persecutors of Jews in the name of Jesus Christ have too often read these words and satisfied their consciences, saying, “Well, they asked for it!” But is this Matthew’s intent?

Admittedly, Matthew regarded the fall of Jerusalem as judgment for the generation that rejected Jesus’ call to share the banqueting table of his Father. Matthew has interpolated such an unmistakable lesson (Matthew 22:6-7) into the middle of the Great Supper parable which he had from Q (Mathew 22:2-5,8-10; Luke 14:16-24). If he means to have the Jewish mob before Pilate represent the people as a whole, then the reference to “all our children” at least need denote no more than the very next generation, an adjustment required to link the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE with the death of Jesus a generation before.

But one dares to wonder, in light of the parallel to Exodus 24:7-8, whether what Matthew intends here is the embrace by the Jewish people, perhaps despite themselves, of the covenant sacrifice of Jesus, about to transpire. We would then have an exact parallel to John 11:47-53, with its Balaam-like prophecy of the saving death of Jesus: “‘it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.’ Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but that he might gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:50-52).

If this should prove to be the real intention of Matthew, the implications would be far-reaching indeed. But for our purposes, the point is that the passage would complete the parallel between Exodus 24:7-8 and various portions of Matthew, implying strongly that the evangelist intended the death of Jesus as a saving event in the particular sense that it inaugurated a new covenant of faithful observance of the Torah and the commandments of Jesus, the new Moses.

We are far here from any sort of Pauline, much less traditional orthodox soteriology. One might invoke the theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is usually located in the Pauline orbit: does it not similarly suppose that Christ brought a new covenant, sealed in his blood? And is not the result apparently the wholesale dispensing with the ritual regulations of the Torah? Not at all. (Our task here is to expound the teaching of the gospels, not the epistles; the relevant issue is whether Hebrews casts any light on Matthew.) The sympathies of Hebrews would seem to lie more in the direction of the Dead Sea Scrolls community, given (among other things) the mention of repeated baptisms (Hebrews 10:22) and the esoteric doctrine of Melchizedek (chapter 7). It is not evident that the writer to the Hebrews envisioned believers as forsaking ritual observance. All his talk about the superannuation and obsolescence of the temple sacrifice system is better understood as a kind of theodicy for the fall of the temple in 70 CE.[14] The end of the sacrifices need not have entailed suspension of other laws, as the Javneh deliberations of Rabbinic Judaism make perfectly clear. But absolutely no doubt can remain about Matthew: he certainly believed exhaustive legal observance was incumbent upon every disciple. Matthew 5:17-19 even condemns Pauline Christians for so much as relaxing commandments, and the least important ones at that. Remember, too, that Matthew 23:23 congratulates the Pharisees for tithing garden herbs, though he faults them for neglecting weightier issues (unlike the Q original, preserved for us only in Marcion’s text, where Luke 11:42 lacks “without neglecting the others”).

Is the cross central to this plan of salvation? Hardly. One senses that Matthew would have been quite satisfied with a Jesus who died at a ripe old age, like his brother Simon bar-Cleophas, like Jochanan ben-Zakkai, and like Moses, at 120 years. Matthew can make a place for the cross, as inaugurating the New Covenant, but this is just because he finds the fact of Jesus’ death unavoidable. The Dead Sea Scrolls sect lived the life of the New Covenant, too, but they did it without any doctrine of human sacrifice. (Indeed, Robert Eisenman suggests[15] that the Markan/Matthean “new covenant in my blood” is a pun on and derivative from the Qumran term “new covenant of Damascus,” since the Hebrew for “blood” is dam, while “cup” is chos. Paul and others, initially part of the Dead Sea Scrolls community and partakers of their communal “messianic” meals, Eisenman postulates, carried the idea of the supper (and even the original Hebrew phraseology for it) with them when they apostatized from the Torah-zealous movement and preached a law-free gospel to Gentiles instead. The “Covenant of Damascus” thus became the “covenant of the blood cup,” assimilating the rite to the Mystery Cult sacraments with which the Gentile converts were already familiar. Thus the connection with the death of a divine savior, Jesus, would represent a secondary understanding of the ritual.


Luke: Mission and Omission

The Third Evangelist’s antipathy for cross-based soteriology is well known, if not entirely understood. It is not that he denies the reality of the crucifixion in the manner of Christian Docetists, Basilides, or the Koran (4:156-159). No, it is just that, for Luke, the cross is important in a secondary sense. While not a sufficient condition for salvation as it is for Paul, it is a necessary condition. That is, while the cross is not the thing that saves believers, it forms a necessary hurdle for him who would be Christ. This is the thrust of the scripture survey the Unknown Christ imparts to his Emmaus disciples on the road: “Was it not required of the Christ to suffer these trials, and only then to enter into his splendor?” (Luke 24:26). They had entertained the vain hope (as they came to view it) that Jesus might be the one to “redeem” (i.e., to liberate) Israel. But, they concluded, Jesus’ terrible fate disqualified him. Back to the drawing board. Next time maybe Menachem the Zealot. But no. Jesus tells them they had it all wrong: the crucifixion was predicted. It was on the true messiah’s agenda. Thus any candidate who shunned the cross could never qualify! Thus the crucified Jesus deserves a second look.

It is a brilliant tour de force, albeit a manifest case of transforming necessity into virtue. At any rate, we are not surprised to read this much. What may surprise us is the utter lack, here or anywhere else in Luke-Acts, of any mention of the saving virtue of the cross. When Jesus teleports back to Jerusalem (thoughtlessly leaving the Emmaus pair to hoof it under their own steam), he reasons similarly with the eleven: “Scripture stipulates that the Christ must needs suffer and, on the third day following, return from the dead, and that [a message of] repentance and forgiveness should be preached in [association with] his name to all nations, radiating outward from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). What is “missing” from this scenario? Any link between the death of Jesus and the efficacy of repentance for forgiveness. True, if Jesus had not died, repentance would not be preached in his name. If Christ had not died, our faith should be in vain. But there is not a word of his death enabling or effecting our salvation.

The same tendency can be seen in the apostolic speeches (all Luke’s work, if that even needs to be asserted anymore). In Peter’s Pentecost sermon we learn of a startling reversal: “this Jesus, delivered by the fixed plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of unwashed pagans. But God raised him up” (Acts 2:23-24a). Whence salvation? That is another matter. It stems from Jesus’ exaltation to heaven: “having received from the Father the promise [of Joel] that he would dispense the Holy Spirit, he has poured out [the signs] that you see and hear” (Acts 2:33a). “Repent and be baptized, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Again, one looks in vain for any link between the death of Jesus (itself no mistake, but a predestined milestone) and the salvation of believers. We read only that Jesus is the name which makes baptism effective and entitles one to the reception of the Spirit.

Peter proclaims both the death of Jesus (with its dramatic reversal and foreordination, 3:13-15; 18-19) and the salvation available through his name (Acts 3:16), but the one remains unconnected with the other save as successive events in the same story. The same situation obtains in Acts 5:30-31: Jews killed Jesus, God raised him up, he gives repentance and forgiveness to Israel, no connection. The import of Philip’s coaching of the Ethiopian eunuch had naught to do with the salvation wrought by the old rugged cross; rather, the point again is that the Christ had to suffer as (Deutero-)Isaiah had laid down (Acts 8:34: “Sir, of whom does the prophet predicate these things? Himself? Or someone else?”) To Cornelius Peter explains how God reversed the seeming triumph of Jesus’ foes (Acts 10:39-40) and how “every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43), but he does not intimate that the death makes that forgiveness possible. Acts 13:27-30 has Paul reiterate the secret plan for Jesus’ death and the unwitting cooperation of Jesus’ enemies, an act of murder that God reversed. And he goes on to say that (13:38-39) forgiveness and freedom are to be had through him. Not through his death, though.

The single possible exception to the otherwise consistent trend is Acts 20:28, a reference to “the church of God which he obtained with his own blood” or, as other manuscripts have it, “the church of the Lord [or, “of the Lord and God”], which he obtained with his own blood” (or, as others read, “with the blood of his own [Son]).”[16] Textual uncertainly of this kind often marks interpolation, even scribal harmonization of different interpolations. It appears that someone has sought to import into Luke’s text some of the “butcher shop religion” (Harry Emerson Fosdick) that Luke sought so fastidiously to avoid.

Evangelistic tracts often diagram the gospel, representing the sinner on one lip of a great chasm with heaven on the far side and hell yawning in between. He is enabled to cross over only when, in the next frame, the horizontal beam of Jesus’ cross forms a bridge over the abyss. Such a diagram does not fit Luke’s understanding of salvation, where the cross is not the bridge. A Lukan tract would show a series of huge block letters spelling out the name “Jesus” as a bridge across the ravine.

We saw that Matthew retained the two scant Markan references to Jesus’ coming death as a ransom for many, supplying a more elaborate theological context, that of the new covenant and its sealing in sacrificial blood. Luke does just the opposite: he cuts them both! Where Mark had Jesus say, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45), Luke has, “which is the greater personage, the one who reclines at table? Or the one who serves? Surely, it is the one who reclines, no? And yet I conduct myself among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Conspicuously absent are both the Son of Man references (given the context, a simple mark of self-abnegating humility anyway) and the business about him dying, much less as a ransom.

Some suggest that Luke preferred a parallel tradition (another version of the saying) to Mark’s, others that Luke just rewrote Mark. The only difference between the two opinions is that the former opens the possibility that Mark had added either or both the ransom and the Son of Man phrases to a prior, simpler tradition, represented by Luke, to which Luke had independent access. Only it is hard to see why Mark would have changed it, since at least the ransom notion is so comparatively unimportant for him, as we have seen. In either case, Luke, who knew Mark, did not want to carry over Mark’s reference to Jesus’ death as a ransom.

The same tendency is at work in Luke’s treatment of the Last Supper, where Luke has trimmed, really truncated, Mark’s Words of Institution. Mark had, “And as they were eating, he took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take it--this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the [new?] covenant, which is poured out for many. Amen: I tell you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 14:22-25). Luke’s version looks rather different: “‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I will not eat it [again?] until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that henceforth I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.’ And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body’” (Luke 22:15-19a). This must be the original text, contra the efforts of Joachim Jeremias[17] and others who prefer those manuscripts that continue thusly: “‘which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’” (22:19b-20). The Lukan original is abrupt enough, but the attempt to bring it closer to Mark, Matthew, and 1 Corinthians 11:24-26 is so clumsy that the interpolator does not even mind adding a second eucharistic cup just to fit everything in!

We see, then, that Luke has taken the knife to Mark’s text again, aiming to remove any impression that the bread and wine have anything to do with a redemptive sacrifice.


John: Banner Held Aloft

On our topic, as with some others, the Gospel of John seems conflicted, pointing in two directions. It would be no surprise if the cause were simply the evangelist’s own lack of closure, a failure to think systematically. But, given the patterns that seem to form, it appears more likely to me that our present text of John is the result of a late harmonization of the recensions cherished and redacted by two competing Johannine factions: the Gnosticizing group condemned in 1 and 2 John and the Catholicizing group who condemned them as false offshoots. My guess is that each had its version of the gospel, and that later scribes, perhaps oblivious of the obsolete debate, decided to combine readings from both versions, thinking in that way not to risk losing any of the precious text. It seems to me that the vast majority of Johannine salvation texts understand Jesus as the Gnostic Revealer come to earth to break the silence of eternity, which not even the imposter Moses was able to penetrate (John 1:17; 10:8). He gives authority to become God’s children only to those who believe in him and his word. Without his light, one walks forever in darkness. Without his water, one thirsts with the thirst of Tantalus. Without his resurrection, one remains among the hordes of living dead.

On the other hand, there are a few passages which seem to approximate something like Pauline soteriology, though without spelling it out. Let us briefly survey them. First, John the Baptist speaks with the voice of the evangelist when he calls Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). That imagery, though succinct, certainly seems to posit Jesus dying as an atoning sacrifice. Raymond E. Brown posited an earlier meaning of the phrase, though, one which had no sacrificial slant. Brown thought the evangelist might be employing a traditional saying of John the Baptist which prophesied the advent of a warrior messiah along the lines of the messianic Ram of 1 Enoch 90:38. For such a one to “take away the sins of the world” need denote no more than his conquering the reign of sin by vanquishing the wicked.[18] Brown does not think that the evangelist had this in mind, but rather that he was reinterpreting such a traditional Johannine oracle in the framework of Christian soteriology. I think Brown’s guess is probably correct; still, while we are reopening the question of precisely what sort of soteriology John’s Gospel may feature, perhaps we ought to hold open the possibility that John the evangelist intended the meaning Brown ascribes only to John the Baptist. The well-known “realized eschatology” of the Fourth Gospel need not militate against this possibility, since the evangelist would simply be understood as applying one more traditional messianic designation, albeit in a demythologized way.

And though the echo is fainter, we catch a Pauline note in John 3:16, that “God… gave his only-begotten Son” so we might “have eternal life.” And yet the Son is not said to be “delivered up” or “handed over” to death. The Father’s gift of the Son might simply refer to his sending him as a revelation.

Twice the Johannine Jesus speaks of “being lifted up,” presumably on the cross. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). “‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ He said this to specify the mode of his death” (John 12:32-33). Interestingly, without the narrator’s comment, we might very well understand the “lifting up from earth” to refer to the ascension (John 6:62; 20:17), as in a larger sense it does seem to do, as if the cross is a stairway to heaven, the means or the beginning of the ascension (John 17:1-5, where the impending arrest is said to mark Jesus’ return to his Father’s side in heavenly glory). In any case, this elevation of Jesus like Moses’ apotropaic caduceus in Numbers 21:9 serves to make Jesus visible, figuratively, to the crowds who only need believe in him to be saved. There is nothing here of a blood sacrifice.

Thrice Jesus speaks of laying down or giving up his life or flesh for the sake of others. “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). This verse occurs in the midst of a sacramental section added by the Ecclesiastical (or Catholicizing) Redactor, as Loisy and Bultmann clearly saw.[19]

“I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15b). Here is a reference, reminiscent of both Calvinism and Gnosticism, whereby Jesus’ saving death avails only for his predestined elect, no one else, though the sentence may merely be telescoping intention with result: Jesus dies to save, and those who heed him are saved by that death.

“This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13). Yet Paul could think of a greater: “Why, it is rare for one to die for a righteous man, though it is conceivable that someone might. But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). That is not necessarily what the Johannine Jesus is doing. His “friends” implies they are already identified as his in some important manner, suggesting the Gnosticism which this gospel is otherwise so frequently redolent.

We see, then, that the first passage, part of a Catholicizing interpolation, may be discounted, and the second and third seem to tend in a Gnostic direction in that the focus is on the elect, who in a sense are already saved by nature. We may be seeing the first steps from a Gnostic soteriology of receiving the word of the extra-cosmic Revealer, toward a more Catholic notion of the sacrifice of the Redeemer of the cosmos. Whether this transformation is occurring in the mind of the evangelist or in the process of textual interpolation and harmonization is impossible to say.



Why do we find merely the hints and intimations of a doctrine of salvation by the crucifixion of Jesus in the gospels? There is nothing in them like the exposition of Paul on the subject. Granted, the very character of the gospels as narratives is going to limit the amount of exposition on any topic, but there remains much teaching in their pages, and that teaching bears little resemblance to that of the Pauline epistles. But perhaps the question of genre does hold the key. As Helmut Koester suggested some years ago,[20] the very nature of a hero biography or hagiography implies a certain kind of faith among those by and for whom it is written. Among such Christians there was a great interest in Jesus as a hero to admire and to emulate. The gospels are largely aretalogies (though Mark, followed by Matthew, Luke, and John, decided to combine that narrative form with the teaching materials which, circulating at first by themselves in non-narrative collections like Q and the Gospel of Thomas, presupposed a more disembodied faith in a sage and his words, a “talking head”). In the epistles, by contrast, the plot and action are replaced by the flow and development of argument. Ideas and doctrines take the place of characters and locales. And I suggest that the conception of Jesus’ death as a saving event fits more naturally into the epistles’ world of ideas than into the gospels’ world of events. So the death of Jesus winds up meaning something very different in the one genre than in the other. Salvation by the cross seems to be central to the epistles, but marginal in the gospels.

I do not mean to say that it only seems, in reading the gospels, that there is a lighter emphasis being placed upon the redemption of the cross, whereas in fact the evangelists must also have believed in something like Pauline soteriology. No, to the contrary, we have absolutely no right to assume that all early Christians held unanimously to the same creed. That is the fantasy of apologetical harmonists. We have no right to ascribe any belief to the writer of a document that is not set forth in its pages. Granted, one might yet believe something even if one had no occasion to write it down, but in the case of “gospels,” accounts of the Good News of Salvation, we must assume the writers were putting down in black and white what they thought essential to that salvific message. So if a gospel lacks one version of soteriology, we can rightly infer that its author did not believe in it. If the historical fact was otherwise, we have no way of knowing it. Certainly wishful thinking is no adequate reason. No, I mean rather to say that various versions of Christian soteriology evolved in the course of early Christian preaching, exhorting, and evangelism, along the lines of different media, oral and written. And we may discern how, during that propagation, genre considerations led to very different theologies of salvation. A “Gospel Christian” held a different sort of faith than an “Epistle Christian” did. Not all whose faith was nourished by admonitory epistles necessarily read much in the way of cross-soteriology (good luck finding it in James, Jude, or the Thessalonians!).

Beyond the question of implicit genre trajectories, we have to account for the fact that the developed gospels we possess in the canon are by no means shy of Christological teaching, implicit and explicit. So had their authors wished to propagate something like Pauline soteriology, there was nothing stopping them. Why didn’t they do it? All we can say (though it may be enough) is that the evangelists’ rather different depictions of the death of Jesus and its importance show no anxiety about departing from a Pauline norm, implying that there was no such norm to reject or modify. Luke’s treatment seems to be as close to this as we come, since admittedly it does seem to avoid, and not merely to be innocent of, relevant Markan materials. Whether or not Mark intended such texts as Luke bypasses to be hints of a cross-soteriology we cannot say, but Luke apparently took them as such and rejected them. Even here what we are seeing is a period of Christianity in theological flux. The Pauline option, which seems to undergird eventual Western Catholic soteriology, is but one voice in the early Christian canon, and it had its work cut out for it shouldering aside Gnostic, theios aner, nomistic covenant sealing, and other understandings of the cross. Once we know this, our own theologies, even if we fancy ourselves still to be Biblicists in some manner, must partake of the same freedom of interpretation. Theological experimentation on the cross has never really ceased, as witness the theories of Francis Turretin, Hosea Ballou, Karl Barth, Donald M. Baillie, Charles Fillmore, and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. And there is no reason that they should.



[1] Theodore J. Weeden, Mark: Traditions in Conflict (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), Chapter II, “The Christological Conflict,” pp. 52-69.

[2] Gail Anne Paterson, “The Divine Man in Hellenistic Popular Religion.” A Ph.D. dissertation for Drew University, 1983 (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1996). Clyde Weber Votaw, The Gospels and Contemporary Biographies in the Greco-Roman World, Facet Books Biblical Series 27 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970). Charles H. Talbert, What Is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).

[3] Ernst Käsemann, New Testament Questions of Today, trans. W.J. Montague (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), Chapter V, “On the Subject of Primitive Christian Apocalyptic,” section 2, pp. 124-27.

[4] Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (NY: Schocken Books, 1973), Eighth Lecture: “Sabbatianism and Mystical Heresy,” pp. 287-324. Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (NY: Schocken Books, 1971), Lecture Four: “Redemption Through Sin,” trans. Hillel Halkin, pp. 78-141. Arthur Mandel, The Militant Messiah, or The Flight from the Ghetto: The Story of Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1979).

[5] Or as some have called it, “heavenly deception”; see Frederick Sontag, Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church (NY: Abingdon Press, 1977), pp. 184-187.

[6] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (NY: Random House, 1979), Chapter 4, “The Passion of Christ and Persecution of Christians,” pp. 70-101. Sami Nasib Makarem explains the same practice of holy dissimulation among the Druze sect in The Druze Faith (Delmar, NY: Caravan Books, 1974), pp. 100-101.

[7] Robert M. Fowler, Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), pp. 76-77.

[8] Gordon W. Allport, The Individual and his Religion (NY: Macmillan, 1950, 1974): “The child who finds his personal advantage not immediately and satisfactorily served by his prayers may discard his conceptions and terminate once and for all his religious quest. Sometimes the issue comes to a head only later in life, in conjunction with acute personal need. ‘Prayer does not stop bullets,’ was the refrain of many [WW2] veterans; ‘they perforate both devout and infidel.’ … A faith centered in self-advantage is bound to break up” (p. 120).

[9] Theodore J. Weeden, “Two Jesuses,” a paper delivered to the Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute, Fall, 2003.

[10] Robert M. Price, Deconstructing Jesus (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000), pp. 221-24.

[11] Alfred Loisy, The Birth of the Christian Religion, trans. L.P. Jacks (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948), p.249.

[12] Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, trans. William Montgomery (NY: Seabury Press, 1968), p. 225. Montgomery renders the phrase “subsidiary crater,” which loses Schweitzer’s typically striking visual imagery.

[13] Sam K. Williams, Jesus’ Death as Saving Event: The Background and Origin of a Concept, Harvard Dissertations in Religion 2 (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1975).

[14] John C. O’Neill, The Theology of Acts in its Historical Setting (London: SPCK, 1961), pp. 83-93.

[15] Robert Eisenman, “Qumran’s ‘New Covenant in the Land of Damascus’ and the New Testament’s ‘Cup of the New Covenant in (His) Blood’” Journal of Higher Criticism 10/1 (Spring 2003): 121-36.

[16] Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 87-88. Ehrman holds for “the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own [Son],” but I think the original was simply, “the church of God.”

[17] Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, trans. Arnold Ehrhardt (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1955), pp. 87-106.

[18] Loisy, Birth of the Christian Religion, p. 243. Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, trans. G.W. Beasley-Murray, R.W.N. Hoare, and J.K. Riches (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 219.

[19] Raymond E. Brown, “John the Baptist in the Gospel of John,” in Brown, New Testament Essays (Garden City: Doubleday Image, 1968), pp. 179-181.

[20] Helmut Koester, “GNOMAI DIAPHOROI: The Origin and Nature of Diversification in the History of Early Christianity,” in James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), pp. 151-153.