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Chapter 2 Jesus’ Death in Scholarship CAN CHRISTIANS TRUST A SOTERIOLOGY ABOUT WHICH JESUS IS UNAWARE? If Homer scholars never find Achilles’ immortal shield and see firsthand the dance floor depicted by Hephaistos, the lame craftsman among Zeus’s gods, it would not affect Homer’s depiction of the cosmic dimensions of life, or his insight into the tragic flaws of human character, or his impact on the image of the heroic. If Achilles never fought Hector, life would remain the same. If Roman scholars were never to find any evidence of Aeneas, of his trip to northern Africa or his eventual triumph in Rome, most of us would still value Vergil’s broad perceptions of the push of history toward a settled blessing over Rome, and his artistic capacity to turn life into a cosmic story. If Aeneas never sailed, the winds of Vergil would still blow. If medieval scholars never find a socially active Robin Hood from Nottingham (i.e., Edwinstowe), the yearning for social justice would still fill our hearts. If we agree with J.C. Holt’s theory that the original Robin Hood was a certain Robert Hode who stole some chickens, the power of the Robin Hood story would not be affected.1 We don’t need a historical Achilles, Hector, Aeneas, or Robin Hood in order to have the story and message they became. But, if Jesus scholars settle into a studied consensus that Jesus never thought about his death in saving terms,2 if those scholars conclude that the early A shortened version of this chapter was given to the SBL Historical Jesus Section in Nashville, Tennessee (19 November 2000) and is now an updated expansion of my article, “Jesus and His Death,” CurBS 9 (2001): 185–228. I am grateful to those who offered suggestions and queries but especially to D.C. Allison, K. Snodgrass, and N.T. Wright. 1 J.C. Holt, Robin Hood (London: Thames & Hudson, 1982). 2 On those terms, see S.B. Marrow’s fine study, “Principles for Interpreting the New Testament 47 48 Jesus and His Death Christian atonement theology was fictive and symbolic rather than grounded in something Jesus said or thought, then it would shake the faith of many today who see the essence of Christianity in the death of Jesus as an atoning death, even if Jesus “suffered the extreme penalty” (Tacitus, Ann. 15.44). Looking for Jesus’ view of his death is to ask if the Christian interpretation of his death is grounded in some historical fact, if those various early Christian construals of his death were intended by the one who set the agenda for his followers. To be sure, as Umberto Eco has said so well, “the cultivated person’s first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopedia,”3 but should we here? Should we prefer the view of the Apostle Paul and Auctor Hebraeos or that of Tacitus and the Talmud (b. Sanh. 43b [cf. Deut 13:1-11])? Or do we need to start all over again, as if for the first time? The questions before us in this monograph are these: Did Jesus think he would die prematurely? If so, at what point in his life did that occur to him? from the outset? following the death of John the Baptist? after he was opposed by the leaders? or, only after he entered Jerusalem that last week? Furthermore, did Jesus think about his death in saving terms? Did he think it was of more than martyrological value or not? And, if not, what are we to make of the continued witness of the church to the atoning value of his death? The chief export of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ and the cross4—articulated in jewelry, in architecture, and in theology. But, is this witness of the church little more than attributing to Jesus’ death what it wishes to find in the relationship to God through Jesus Christ—whether he thought of his death in such terms or not? Is it, to use postmodernist language, simply meaning found in discrete events, a meaning valuable for some but not for others, meaning that is not inherent to the event itself, meaning used to justify and legitimate power structures? Is the church’s witness to the death of Jesus as saving event simply an illustration that, in the words of the Peruvian savant Mario Vargas Llosa, “sociSoteriological Terms,” NTS 36 (1990): 268–80; for a brief...


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