Continued from Chapter 36c

(Psalm 22)

Finding the Jesus who never was

The early church used the Jewish Scriptures to augment the little they knew of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ death.

To this end they made use of Psalms 22:2, 19. Later Christians sought further confirmation of their claims by expanding their citations from this psalm. The historical Jesus was of little interest to that part of the church that had not known Jesus the man personally. What interested this faction was how to show Jesus as the messianic savior raised from the dead to bring salvation to those who believed in him. He was no longer simply Jesus the Messiah; he now was the risen Christ, the supernatural savior. Consequently Paul wrote: He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and rose again on their behalf. Therefore, from now on we recognize no man according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know [him thus] no longer. (2 Corinthians 5:15-16)

The Christ of the flesh, the historical Jesus, was of no significance to Paul and his teachings prevailed. Consequently, when the churches he founded sought to gain converts they could not rely on actual historical data concerning the life of Jesus. They sought to apply what they read in the Jewish Scriptures, mostly in their Greek rendering, to his life as if he was the fulfillment of those readings. It really did not matter since his actually earthly existence was of little importance. For Christians Psalm 22 became a foreshadowing of the crucifixion of Jesus. The typological approach to sacred scripture was not unknown among Jews, but it became the characteristic Christian method of reading and understanding the Jewish Scriptures. It was common for Christians to believe that the Jewish Scriptures contained hints and allusions that foreshadowed events in the life of Jesus. Events in the life and death of Jesus were created to reflect the foreshadowing found in biblical verses (e.g., virgin conception, resurrection). 5 typologies were used to prove later Christian beliefs and practices (e.g., the Trinity, Eucharist). Typologies were found in such biblical figures as Adam, Joseph, Moses, and David who were said to prefigure Jesus. One could supposedly see common parallels in the lives of these biblical personalities and that of Jesus.

The typological approach was seen by Christians as confirmation that God had prearranged events in the so-called Old Testament as forshadowings of events occurring in the New Testament. This notion is expressed in the Latin saying: Quod in vetere latet in novo patet (“What is hidden in the Old [Testament] is made explicit in the New”). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Psalm 22 should be seen as just such a prefiguring of the crucifixion. However, when this claim is carefully scrutinized the interpretation’s validity must be rejected.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

There are several versions recorded by the evangelists as to what were Jesus’ last words from the cross. Mark, followed generally by Matthew, gives this account: And at the ninth hour Jesus called out with a loud voice: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders having heard it were saying: “Behold, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran and filled a sponge full of sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink, saying: “Let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and expired. (Mark 15:34-37)

Jesus’ cry of anguish: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the second verse of Psalm 22. But why should Jesus have expressed this sentiment? Why should he have thought of himself as separated from God at the very moment when, according to Christian theology, he was fulfilling God’s plan? Luke and John omit this cry in their crucifixion accounts, and instead, imply that Jesus himself was in complete control of the event. According to Luke, Jesus’ final cry was: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46), words taken from Psalms 31:6. John also views the crucifixion not as abandonment by God, but as the conclusion of Jesus’ alleged divine mission, in which he peacefully surrenders his soul to God. Thus, John writes: “He bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). Christians, attempting to explain Jesus’ feeling of abandonment, as recorded by Matthew and Mark, contend that in reality he had in mind, not only the despairing words with which Psalm 22 opens, but also the trusting words with which this psalm ends. But this argument from silence amounts to putting words in Jesus’ mouth. Whether Jesus knew the theme of the entire psalm is of no consequence.

What matters is that he allegedly only made use of the opening words of a psalm, to express his despair and failed to continue with the concluding words of the psalm expressive of hope and trust in God. Furthermore, it makes little sense to see in Psalm 22 prophecies depicting the agony felt by Jesus at his crucifixion. Are we to believe that Jesus, who is supposed to be a supernatural being that is part of the Godhead and God’s only begotten son, fell into deep depression and anguish because God refused to help him in his hour of need?

Why should he offer prayers to be saved from a fate that he was knowingly supposed to endure in order to redeem all humanity from the power of sin? How could Jesus have entertained the thought that God forsook him if by his allegedly pre-planned divinely ordained death humanity was supposedly given its only means of attaining salvation?

If, as the Gospels assume, Jesus knew and predicted long in advance the events surrounding his death and if these events were neither a surprise nor a defeat but a working out of a divinely designed plan, then what sense does it make for Jesus to complain: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is precisely to be killed that he allegedly became incarnate. Earlier, in Gethsemane, Jesus is alleged to have prayed that God should spare him from having to undergo his bitter fate. However, Jesus added that not his will, but his “Father’s” will, should be done (Matthew 26:36-45, Mark 14:32-41, Luke 22:41-44). Why did Jesus give vent to feelings of despair and failure when he supposedly knew that he was really acting out a preordained cosmic plan? John wrote: “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said: ‘I am thirsty’” (John 19:28). Despite this claim, Jesus obviously had neither foreknowledge nor control of events.

If Jesus, in those last agonizing minutes, truly felt personally abandoned, his mission coming to grief, then he could not be the messiah that Christian theology believes him to be. Having been foretold in Psalm 22, the messiah of Christian mythology would have known that death by crucifixion was essential to his mission. If he knew this, then his words of despair were deceptive, something unbefitting to a supernatural being called the Son of God. Psalm 22 does not apply to the life of Jesus. Jesus’ life ends disappointedly, whereas the psalmist, after metaphorically describing his trials and tribulations, concludes on a positive note. Jesus takes no such positive position. If he literally fulfilled all of Psalm 22, the logical order of development would be for depression to give way to joy as he realized God’s purpose had been attained through his act of sacrificial death.

© Gerald Sigal