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The Communal Crucifixion of Jesus

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The Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman historian Tacitus, and the Christian Apostles' Creed have very little in common. Except for this one thing: that, respectively, Jesus "had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus"; that "Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified"; and that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate [and] was crucified."

Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea and, appointed by the emperor Tiberius, he ruled from 26 to 36 C.E. He and the Jewish high priest Caiaphas collaborated not wisely but too well and they were both eventually removed from office by their Roman masters. Jesus' execution is as historically certain as any ancient event can ever be but what about all those very specific details that fill out the story? Are they fact or fiction and, if fiction, what is their purpose, intention, meaning?

Think about these examples and, in every case, notice how each one creates an echo or resonance with earlier biblical tradition. The most striking one is the death-cry of Jesus, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" in Mark 15:34 that recalls the opening verse, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" of Psalm 22:1. That recall is left implicit and, if you miss it, you miss it. It is neither proof nor argument but an invitation to thought and a lure for meditation.

Jesus' death-cry as psalm-echo draws attention to further echoes between details of the crucifixion and verses of that same Psalm 22. Here are three examples from Mark, the earliest of the four gospels. Notice that they are all implicit -- if you miss them, you miss them. They are there -- but quietly, like choral music in the background -- for those with ears to hear and hearts to understand.

A first example is the fate of Jesus' clothes. "They crucified him," says Mark 15:24, "and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take." That echoes the verse, "they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots" from Psalm 22:18.

A second example is that, alongside Jesus, "they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left" in Mark 15:27. That echoes the psalm's lament that "a company of evildoers encircles me" in Psalm 22:16b.

A third example is these mocking challenges directed at Jesus: "Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying ... 'Save yourself, and come down from the cross!' ... 'He saved others; he cannot save himself.' ... 'Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe'" in Mark 15:29-32. In the background, hear once again, this taunt: "All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; 'Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver -- let him rescue the one in whom he delights!'" from Psalm 22:7-8. But, once again, the echo is only implicit -- if you miss it, you miss it.

Furthermore, apart from that Psalm 22, there is a clear (but, once again, implicit) allusion to another psalm during the crucifixion of Jesus. Unlike those preceding examples, all four evangelists contain this striking -- and doubled -- reference. Here is an example from Matthew's gospel: "They offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it ... At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink" (27:34,48) That reminds one of this half-verse, "for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink" from Psalm 69:21b.

Those are only a few examples but, from start to finish, in larger and smaller chunks of text, the last hours of Jesus resonate repeatedly with prayers and stories from the biblical tradition that preceded them. How is that "coincidence" to be explained?

My proposal is that multiple details about the death of Jesus were deliberately created but not just at random as mere narrative fill-up. They were created to describe Jesus' death amid a tissue of resonances and a volley of echoes from the biblical past. Further, it is especially from the biblical psalms of lament, from the prayers of the just and righteous suffering injustice and oppression, that those details have been taken. In other words, the evangelists have created communal and corporate rather than just individual and private sufferings for Jesus. Starting from the historical basis of imperial indicting, flogging, and crucifixion, those manifold details -- for example, the death-cry, the divided garments, the mockery, and the bitter drink -- were invented and added within the ongoing tradition about Jesus. But why?

Because of this. Jesus was not the first faithful Jew who died on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem -- nor would he be the last. In 4 B.C.E., Varus crucified two thousand Jews there, and in 70 C.E. Titus crucified five hundred a day -- for how many days? Those first followers of Jesus were Christian Jews," that is "Messianic Jews." They believed that Jesus was their awaited Messiah, their expected Christ. They did not think that Jesus' was just another Roman execution. But neither did they think that he died alone.

He died, for them, as the climax of all the suffering of Israel, as the consummation of all those prayers of lament in the psalms, as the fulfillment of all the faithful martyrs of the biblical tradition. The details of Jesus' death were not fact remembered and history recorded. They were prayer recollected and psalm historicized. But, then, if the suffering of others was imbedded in the crucifixion of Jesus, must not those others have been vindicated by God in his resurrection. if Jesus' death was a communal crucifixion, must there not have been also a communal resurrection?

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