The use of Old Testament texts in the Passion Narratives Essay
The use of Old Testament texts in the Passion Narratives
Explain the use of Old Testament texts in the Passion Narratives you have studied by examining the theological intentions of the evangelists. To what extent does this make the narratives unreliable as historical sources.
Adaptation or redaction of the chronology of events by the evangelists to stress their underlying theological ideas can render sections of their gospels totally useless from a historical perspective, but far more valuable from a theological perspective. When addressing the issue of historical accuracy our main method of identifying theological adaptations is via a process of establishing the main intentions of the relevant evangelist and then attempting to assert where the gospel has been altered to reinforce the underlying themes. Old Testament allusions or direct quotation can be useful as they allow us to see more clearly where the evangelist wishes to stress, or in some way verify, the ideas contained in the gospel and in some cases make the ideas more lucid. For the purposes of this question it may be helpful to examine each gospel individually, making fundamental differences apparent which is where it is most plausible redaction has occurred, and hence establish some form of judgement on historical accuracy.
In Mark’s gospel the narrative is intriguingly different from the rest of the gospel in that it does not bear the characteristic ‘piropi’ or small joining phrases which would imply a synthesis of sources. This would suggest that the narrative may be the section of the gospel in which Mark’s own theological intentions can be best assessed, or the section which Mark feels most importantly requires correct theological interpretation. This may have prompted scholars, such as Kohler, to describe Mark’s gospel as a ‘a Passion Narrative with and introduction. This is especially true given the early Christian need to explain why Jesus was killed in a criminal and humiliating fashion. Alternatively it may have been a source that Mark used which he felt did not require editing. Mark wishes to stress the innocence of Jesus, despite his criminal death, and place the blame predominately on the Jews who created pressure for a false verdict to be delivered making Jesus the victim of what Mark believes was effectively a judicial murder.
Mark also wishes to explain God’s lack of intervention on Jesus behalf and why God allowed his son to die a criminal’s death. He does so by incorporating the idea of Old Testament fulfilment. Here we see Mark utilising Old Testament texts to explain what would have appeared as strange circumstances to early readers of the gospel. However, it is possible Mark used the texts not to justify or explain previous events but in fact used the texts to ‘fill in’ gaps in the account of Jesus’ death. This idea of fulfilment is central to Mark’s gospel and is mentioned very clearly at 8v31 where Jesus teaches of the suffering that must be endured. The theme of suffering is continued in the gospel at 14v27 where Jesus talks of the pouring out of his blood for many which is an allusion to Isaiah 53v12 where the pouring out of life is described in a sacrificial context.
The ‘Agony in the Garden’ bears resemblance to psalms 31v9-10 and 69v1 where Jesus can hardly bear the suffering. This idea is continued in 14v34-36 where Jesus begs for the ‘cup’ to be taken from him this is the cup of suffering referred to in Isaiah 51v17. Mark also emphasises the suffering of Jesus through multiple examples of his humiliation and suffering in the form of spitting and mocking mentioned at 14v65 and further at 50v6. The idea of Jesus’ innocence is also strongly reinforced through Old Testament allusions. The false testimony in 14v57 is mentioned extensively in the Psalms at 27v12, 35v11 and 109v25. The idea of a false testimony to some extent serves a double purpose in that it not only helps with the idea of Jesus’ innocence but also serves to reaffirm ideas of Jewish culpability and hence to some extent exonerates the Roman authorities. This is another prominent theme in Mark’s gospel, which potentially could affect historical accuracy.
John’s gospel places theological emphasis on different issues. Most obvious is the relative irrelevance of the suffering theme, upon which Mark lavishes such attentions. While Mark uses extensive and regular description of the suffering endured by Christ John is satisfied to explain this aspect of Jesus’ death in a short 3 verse summary at the very beginning of chapter 19. Also the incident at Gethsemane (Agony in the Garden) is treated in a drastically different fashion by John. John seems keen to convey that Jesus was aware of his duty and was in perfect and constant unity with God. This difference of theological opinion is lucidly apparent when we one considers the last words uttered by Jesus in the two respective gospels. Mark’s finishes with ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ implying feelings of both confusion and betrayal.
This is not the case at all in John’s gospel where the theme is much more one of completion of duty and responsibility, Jesus’ dying words are ‘It is finished’ or ‘It is completed’ due to variations in translation. This coincides neatly with John’s theme of sacrifice. Jesus is often referred to as the ‘Lamb of God’ and indeed his execution takes place on the day before the Pass-Over feast the same day the lamb was sacrificed for the feast the following day. Also the vinegar offered on a sponge attached to a hyssop branch not only fulfils the second offering of drink prophesised in Psalm 69v21 but also extends the symbolism of the lamb as this was the plant used to spread blood of the lamb on the lintels of houses. This detail is certainly historically inaccurate and features, presumably, for purely theological reasons as a hyssop plant would have never been able to support a vinegar soaked sponge, given its flaccid nature.
These ideas of Gods power extending throughout the narrative are illustrated certain events: the soldiers falling over at the arrest, the ripping of the temple veil and Jesus’ dialogues with Pilate on kingship. John also omits other themes that are key in Mark’s gospel. There is no institution of the Eucharist, there is no false testimony at Jesus’ trail and the theme of betrayal and dispersal of the disciples is not stressed at all. In Mark’s gospel Jesus seems to be distraught and confused by his suffering and fate, whereas in John Jesus feels this is his duty and conducts himself in a manner throughout which suggests he has prior knowledge of his fate or knows that what he is doing is his duty and his obligation to complete. John is the only evangelist who sees Jesus’ death as a glorification and uses the word ‘doxa’ meaning glory at 13v31 and 12v16.
This idea too has support from the Old Testament in chapter 16 of Exodus the Israelites are promised a vision of God’s glory and this theme also has connections to the theme of ‘light’ in Isaiah 10v1-3. However, the theme of sacrifice is largely absent from the extensive discourse material in John’s gospel prompting some scholars to assert that the theme only occurs when John is attempting to ‘prove’ Old Testament texts. This theory may carry some weight owing to the fact that the fourth gospel encountered trouble with acceptance as a genuine evangelical document and many thought it in fact to be a Gnostic work. Later editors may have felt some need to add Old Testament proof texts to authenticate the document and this could be a partial explanation for why this theme is mainly confined to the Passion Narrative and does not feature very prominently outside of this section of the gospel.
When examining the two narratives together it becomes clear that although the documents follow much the same general chronology of events there are important omissions and additions. These two aspects of the both gospels, we must assume, are theological devices. Indeed, it is quite clear that the emphasis is placed on radically different theologies regarding Jesus’ death. Nonetheless, it is very difficult to pass a judgement on the historical accuracy of these documents given that they are the only two sources from the period we have studied.
To make any valuable or worthwhile assessment on historical accuracy one would presume the wisest option would be to consult a large number of sources and attempt to identify which events are common to all or most sources. What one can obtain from the study of these two documents is that both evangelists were prepared to edited and place emphasis unequally in order to clarify the theological point they are attempting to convey and for this reason we must be wary of their historical accuracy and try to first assert that no theological motivation lies behind the account with which we are presented.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 13 September 2017
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