Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Review: Loren Rosson

The Historical Lamb

Scot McKnight's Jesus and His Death is, ironically, a breath of life into a field of decay. Against the North American trend which views the question of Jesus' understanding of his own death as misguided, McKnight assumes as likely that Jesus thought he would die prematurely, in the providence of God, and would probably die at the hands of elites who saw his movement as a potential source of rebellion. "It only makes sense," he states, "that one who thought he would die, who on other grounds considered himself a prophet, also tried to make sense of that death" (p 177). Jewish leaders like this regularly looked to prototypes from the Tanakh in order to make sense of death and destiny, and even if they never saw their deaths as atoning, it was always a "short step to the atoning value of these martyrdoms" (p 179).

The book is suspenseful as it works from a more general discussion of how Jesus made sense of his prophetic mission, to the idea that he thought he would die prematurely, to exactly how he made sense of that death. It gets the foundation right, backing Dale Allison's important dissertation, The End of the Ages Has Come: Jesus believed he was living in the end times, on the brink of the tribulation period. Like Allison, McKnight favors the collective interpretation of the apocalyptic Son of Man (Dan 7), referring to the suffering and vindication of Jesus and his followers in the last days (p 173) (see also Allison's Millenarian Prophet, pp 65-66).

McKnight examines the Old Testament scripts invoked in the gospels -- hardly leaving a stone untouched -- and asks whether or not these were used by Jesus to make sense of his impending death. He finds that they do not, dealing instead with how the prophet understood his mission. In Mt 8:20/Lk 9:58, for instance, Jesus applied the script of Psalm 8:4-8 to himself and followers, making sense of the fact that they were itinerants who needed food and shelter (pp 191-194); Lk 9:61-62 points to an early period when Jesus saw himself as Elijah (pp 194-196); the calling of twelve special disciples may indicate a Joshua script, the formation of Israel's nation at the Jordan River, which would be reconstituted at the apocalypse (Mt 19:28/Lk 22:28-30) (pp 200-201); and especially noteworthy is Mt 10:34-36/Lk 12:51-53, which alludes to the prophecy of Micah, through which we find "a rare glimpse into the inner mind of Jesus" (citing Caird) (pp 201-204).

For this last, McKnight notes how Jesus reversed the expectations of Malachi with Micah. While Elijah was supposed to bring peace and put an end to the family chaos in Micah (Mal 4:6; Mic 7:6), Jesus denied that he brought peace -- he brought a "sword" and "division", evidently concluding that he wasn't Elijah after all (though he may have thought this initially). John was Elijah, while he was more like Micah. From the time of John/Elijah forward there would be an ugly time of tribulation (Mt 11:12/Lk 16:16) (a belief which probably owed in large measure to the rejection Jesus experienced from his own family (p 203)).

Moving into tangled territory, McKnight takes on the question of Isaiah's suffering servant (Isa 52:13-53:12), where Christian tradition has for centuries seen Jesus reflecting on the pivotal meaning of his death. Against many scholars (Dodd, Taylor, Cadoux, Manson, Jeremias, Marshall, Caird, Wright), McKnight demonstrates that the servant song doesn't provide a reliable anchor here (see pp 207-224). At best Jesus applied Isaiah minimally to his present ordeal ("he was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering"), but not the parts later pressed into actual atonement theory ("he was wounded for our transgressions; by his bruises we are healed").

Turning to the passion predictions (Mk 8/Mk 9/Mk 10 and pars in Mt-Lk), McKnight finds that they breathe the air of prophetic martyrdom rather than atonement (p 230), and that they're more about vindication than death in any case. The scriptural basis for them is mostly Dan 7, showing that God will vindicate the Son of Man and his followers at the apocalypse (p 238).

All of these scripts, but some less than others -- the Psalmist's Son of Man, Elijah, Joshua, and Micah, Isaiah's suffering servant, and Daniel's apocalyptic Son of Man -- helped Jesus make sense of his prophetic mission in light of the tribulation period, the opposition he now faced, and the expected vindication/resurrection of him and his followers. But none offer a reliable window onto how Jesus saw his death, and the ransom saying of Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28 is doubtfully traceable to Jesus (p 356).

Where we finally locate Jesus' understanding of his death is in the eucharist account, related in the synoptic gospels and Paul's letter to the Corinthians. McKnight’s analysis of the last supper has to be the best available, and is alone worth the price of the book. Not since Jeremias has the eucharist been so carefully weighed and considered against the background of Judaic passover. McKnight basically argues that the flesh and blood of the passover lamb was replaced by Jesus' own "body and blood" (in the bread and wine), intended to protect his followers from God’s fiery judgment against Jerusalem and its leaders (p 323).

McKnight thus finds John’s chronology to be more likely than that of the synoptic gospels (p 270). Jesus celebrated passover a day early, without a lamb and in a home more readily available, and saw in the bread his sacrificial body (he was now the lamb) and in the wine his blood (p 271). He was thus reenacting the ancient tradition of smearing blood on the doors of Israelite homes so that God would deliver his people from oppressors. When Paul says that "Jesus is our paschal lamb" (I Cor 5:7), and when the fourth gospel writer refers to Jesus as "the lamb of God" (Jn 1:29), we are in touch, however obliquely, with the historical Jesus.

It's crucial to keep passover sacrifice distinct from other forms of sacrifice, and McKnight (initially) does this quite well, distinguishing passover from covenant-ceremony and atonement (p 285). Passover sacrifice did not atone/forgive; it protected. Yahweh "passed over" those so protected when he came in judgment (p 281). Passover was also not a covenant ceremony; while covenant sacrifice dealt with relationship and commitment, passover was all about deliverance from tyranny and bondage. Exod 12 and 24 are, as McKnight puts it, "countries and ideas apart" (p 308).

The problem is that the synoptic writers and Paul portray the last supper as a covenant-renewal:

(Mark) This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. (14:24)

(Matthew) This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins. (26:28)

(Luke) This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (22:20)

(Paul) This cup is the new covenant in my blood. (I Cor 11:25)

Matthew’s “forgiveness of sins” (signaling atonement) is widely acknowledged as redactional, but what about the multiply-attested “covenant”? McKnight argues convincingly that covenant ideas do not trace back to Jesus anymore than Matthew's sin-forgiveness. His argument can be outlined as follows (see pp 308-311).

* In the entire gospel tradition (including John), covenant is attributed to Jesus only at the last supper, “a text cystallizing a tradition that itself became a liturgical expression in earliest
Christianity.” (p 308)

* Jesus based his vision on “kingdom”, not covenant. “Kingdom is the term Jesus chose to build his dream on; one doesn’t surrender one’s dream terms easily.” (p 309)

* The last supper betrays few signs of a covenant ceremony. The following prerequisites are missing: an oath, a promise, blessings for followers and curses for opponents, an unconditional bond for the suzerain, and a promise of blessings for Jesus’ followers. If Jesus is setting forth a new covenant, he does so without specifying it as such, “a practice abnormal in Judaism”. (p 310)

* Accordingly, Jesus probably only said, “this is my blood”, a tidy parallel to “this is my body”. (p 310)

* There are big steps needed to get from “my blood” in the context of passover sacrifice, to “my blood of the covenant”, and then to “the new covenant in my blood”. It was early Jerusalem-based Christians, or Paul and his associates, and then the writer of Hebrews, who took those steps. (p 311)

McKnight explains further:

“In the exegetical workshop of earliest messianism, then, the tool of covenant became a way of sifting the relationship of believers in Jesus Christ to the scriptural revelation of Torah and its people, Israel. For Paul, it was a tool that separated the Mosaic covenant from the new covenant, primarily by recognizing the significance of the Holy Spirit. For the writer of Hebrews, it was a tool that ontologically separated the old system from the new system, primarily by recognizing the effectiveness of the forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and his intercessory powers. If Paul crossed the threshold by sorting out the relationship of the old to the new in terms of covenant, the author of Hebrews set up shop and made the category his home to an unprecedented degree.” (p 303)

For Paul, of course, Christ’s death was many things -- an example to be followed, a ransom price, a sin offering, a passover sacrifice, and an atoning sacrifice, (all on which see Finlan's book). Covenant crops up occasionally in his letters, but not in terms of Christ's death, only to contrast how the Spirit accomplishes what the Torah/covenant could not. For the author of Hebrews, Christ’s death became not only an atoning sacrifice but a covenant-establishing event. But in the beginning, Jesus understood his death to be a passover sacrifice. That's all.

Having delivered such a convincing thesis, McKnight then undercuts it in his conclusion with a confusion of terminology. He writes:

"[Jesus saw his death as] vicarious and protecting. In stating that the bread was his body and the wine his blood, Jesus suggested that he was the passover victim whose blood would protect his followers from the imminent judgment of God against Jerusalem and its corrupt leadership. We have here the first genuine glimpse of a death that somehow atones. Jesus' theory of the atonement then is that his own death, and his followers' participation in that death by ingestion, protects his followers from the Day of YHWH, which in the prophets especially is often described as the wrath of YHWH. As the avenging angel of the passover in Egypt 'passed over' the first-born children whose fathers had smeared blood on the door, so the Father of Jesus would 'pass over' those followers who ingested Jesus' body and blood." (p 339; bold italics mine)

In claiming that passover sacrifice is a form of atonement after all, McKnight erases proper distinctions he made up to this point (see especially p 285). Atonement involved forgiving sins, whether understood in propitiary terms (appeasing an angry God with sacrifice) or expiatory terms (wiping sin away by harnessing the lifeforce in the blood of the sacrifice). Passover had nothing to do with forgiveness, nothing to do with atonement. It had to do with protection.

The problem is that in the above citation McKnight falls into the common trap of confusing vicariousness with atonement. But vicarious simply means "for the benefit of others", and we saw in my review of Stephen Finlan's book that Paul understood Christ's death to be vicarious in four different ways (atonement but one of the four). So accurately speaking, Jesus saw his death as vicarious -- it would protect his followers when God rained judgment down on everyone -- but not atoning.

Aside from the confusion of terminology (and even concepts) at the end, I found myself agreeing with most of what is presented in Jesus and His Death. McKnight has seriously redressed a dimension to the historical Jesus which is too often ignored in the academy. Jesus lived on a landscape of eschatology and martyrdom. However foreign that landscape is to us (it certainly is to me), we need to get comfortable with ideas that pertain to it.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Jesus and His Death

Some blogging on Jesus and His Death is going on with Loren Rossen.

Friday, September 30, 2005

First Review: Rick Brannan

Rick Brannan, on his nice and informative blog, has written an early review of Jesus and His Death.

The Fall 2005 Catalog from Baylor University Press includes a new title from Scot McKnight, Jesus and His Death. His primary blog is Jesus Creed, though there appears to be a blog for this book too. Here's the book blurb from the publisher:

Recent scholarship on the historical Jesus has rightly focused upon how Jesus understood his own mission. But no scholarly effort to understand the mission of Jesus can rest content without exploring the historical possibility that Jesus envisioned his own death. In this careful and far-reaching study, Scot McKnight contends that Jesus did in fact anticipate his own death, that Jesus understood his death as an atoning sacrifice, and that his death as an atoning sacrifice stood at the heart of Jesus' own mission to protect his own followers from the judgment of God.

As with a few other Baylor University Press titles,** I was granted a sneak peek at this new book from McKnight (Amazon lists the release date as Sept. 30). Page proofs arrived in August; I set the goal of finishing it before September ended, and ... it looks like I've just barely made it.

The subtitle of McKnight's tome says it all: "Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory". That really does sum it up. After setting the scene in the first chapter, McKnight delves into things like:

  • What did Jesus know about his death?
  • When did he know it?
  • How did his understanding of his death develop?

This leads into the primary discussion of the book: What can be concluded regarding the concept of atonement based on the conclusions we can make regarding Jesus' statements and actions?

Not being one who has followed synoptic studies that much, I did feel like I was stepping into the middle of a conversation, especially at the beginning of the book. McKnight interacts with other material published in this area to a large degree. But, to McKnight's credit, he does a good job of orienting the reader with the necessary background material, authors and their material (the footnotes are excellent in this regard, ignore them at your peril!).

That said, realize that this is not a casual read, though I found McKnight more readable than, say, N.T. Wright. Chances are you'll want to have a Bible available to look stuff up as you work through major sections. The work is worth it; the section working through the Last Supper was highly illuminating, at least for me.

All in all: worth the read. If you have interest in Historical Jesus studies, synoptic studies, and stuff like that -- you should probably read this book.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Cover

My 4th Year Seminar on the atonement helped me pick out this cover picture. We looked through Anneke Kaai, with Eugene Peterson, In a Word, and this was about as close to a consensus as we could get. It is called "Death."

Blurbs for Jesus and His Death

Recent scholarship on the historical Jesus has rightly focused upon how Jesus understood his own mission. But no scholarly effort to understand the mission of Jesus can rest content without exploring the historical possibility that Jesus envisioned his own death. In this careful and far-reaching study, Scot McKnight contends that Jesus did in fact anticipate his own death, that Jesus understood his death as an atoning sacrifice, and that his death as an atoning sacrifice stood at the heart of Jesus’ own mission to protect his own followers from the judgment of God.

This is a brave book. With due awareness of the historical traps and with a mastery of the recent relevant literature, McKnight here asks the crucial question, How did Jesus interpret his own death? His answer, which hearkens back to Albert Schweitzer, does full justice to Jesus’ eschatological outlook and makes good sense within a first-century Jewish context. Even those who see things differently—I do not—will enjoy how the detailed and rigorous argument develops and will find themselves learning a great deal.
—Dale C. Allison, Jr., Errett M. Grabe Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Recent books on the historical Jesus illustrate how compelling scholars and general readers alike find the topic of Jesus’ death. But these books also illustrate a major problem—some studies depend upon some grand interpretive theory, while others rivet their attention on exegetical details and disregard developmental questions. Widely read, Scot McKnight does both. He moves back and forth with careful transitions between contemporary hermeneutics and the ancient texts. As he does so, he also provides a rich and often entertaining account of the secondary literature. The volume can be read both as an address of its central questions and as a well-informed introduction to New Testament theology.
—Bruce Chilton, Bard College

Scot McKnight is fully aware that making claims about the historical Jesus is like entering a minefield. But he combines wide-ranging knowledge of and a willingness to interact with the extensive literature to build a careful, brick-by-brick argument. The sheer breadth of issues covered separates this work from what might otherwise have been its competitors. In ways reminiscent of Stephen Neil, McKnight also has written a book that is never dry or dull.
—Joel B. Green, Dean and Professor of New Testament, Asbury Theological Seminary

Scot McKnight (Ph.D. University of Nottingham) is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies, North Park University and author or editor of twelve books, including The Historical Jesus (2005), Turning to Jesus (2002), and Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (1992).

Friday, August 05, 2005


This is to announce that I will be creating a special blog for Jesus and His Death.