Crucifixion and the Persistence of Evil

What follows is a portion of a paper I plan to present at Stone-Campbell Journal Conference next Friday. Though I wrote much of it in November/December, it has had a strange “dual-reading” into my life even now. In it, I seek to reframe Jesus’ cry from the cross in Mark 15:34 as part of a wider tradition of performance and lament. In so doing, I make the case that God’s relationship to chaos, those forces which impinge, oppress, and and do harm, is not yet fully realized; that God has not yet fully mastered and defeated evil. The paper is concerned with religion and politics in the NT thought world, so discussion of chaos/evil is limited to its portrayal in Mark’s crucifixion narrative as connected to the Roman (and Jewish) authorities in the gospel. Mark is not really this reductive in his theology, however, as there are plenty of places where Jesus faces off against forces of chaos, both seen and unseen.

From my perspective, cancer is just such a force of chaos. It is an unwelcome guest, a leech, an unholy aberration. It is evil personified. As I get ready to present this paper next week, I cannot help but feel the weight of my own lament. There is an element now of my own crying out to God, who may or may not be with us. A throwing of stones in God’s direction to get God’s attention, that God would re-awaken and reactivate a mastery over the chaos-monsters, Leviathan or lymphoma, and deliver us righteous sufferers.

A Selection from The Cry and the Confession

From 8:34 onward, the Markan narrative has been spiraling towards the climactic death of Jesus as the telos of his ministry. It is here that Mark will sound echoes not only of previous narrative but also of traditions very familiar to his first-century audience. These narrative and traditional references will go off as flares in the night, signaling an important “dual-reading” of past into present. For Mark’s crucifixion to be properly understood, it must be seen as a median between past and present, in both narrative and performance.

The first imposition of past onto present happens on the level of story. We hear the Markan storyteller make repeated allusions to Psalm 22 [LXX – Psalm 21] and we will hear its opening line on the lips of the dying Christ. This “indirect narrative commentary”[1] is a “scripturalization of history,” a weaving-in of the scriptural tradition into the people’s history of the death of Jesus.[2] Mark is making the assertion that Jesus’ messiahship can only make sense in connection to his righteous suffering, that his program of renewal and resistance throughout the gospel finds its fullest expression in his suffering death under the forces of empire.

Performance  is the second overlaying of past onto present, in that a performer uses the story of Jesus’ death, storied as it is in the traditions of Israel, to make sense of present unjust suffering in the community of faith on the bottom-side of empire. In performance, the performer (and presumably his audience) makes the claim that, against a backdrop of oppression and persecution, Jesus-faith is only properly apprehended and lived out when imaged in the likeness of the cross. Thus, just as the narrative moves forward and backward in story and tradition, so too do the performer and audience move between story, tradition, and lived experience. This is the dual-reading of past and present in Mark and its performance.

Immediately preceding the moment of his death, Jesus cries out from the cross the haunting words, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani? (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)” The citation of Psalm 22:1 in Mark 15:34 is of course obvious to anyone. What is less obvious, but no less critically important is how deeply interwoven Psalm 22 is in Mark’s crucifixion narrative. Here I am indebted to the work of Holly J. Carey in her monograph, Jesus’ Cry from the Cross. In the crucifixion, Carey counts four strong allusions to Ps 22, five faint allusions, and one direct citation in 15:34, making a strong case that the relationship between Mk 15 and Ps 22 is much stronger than simply the citation at 15:34. [3]  But beyond an obvious intertextual relationship between the two texts, what is its significance with regard to the rest of the narrative?

Central to Carey’s thesis is that Mark presents Jesus as the ‘Righteous Sufferer’ par excellence: audiences have been keyed to this note throughout Mark and know that Jesus “is the one who follows the will of God, as opposed to those with whom he engages in conflict and who eventually bring about his arrest and crucifixion.”[4] Therefore, while he is crucified under the ironic inscription “King of the Jews” (15:26), it is clear to the audience that it is his faithfulness in proclaiming the Reign of God that had stopped him short of proclaiming himself a messiah after the likeness of the Davidic kingship (Cf. 9:29-30). Jesus’ kingship and suffering are intertwined in the Markan story, and if Carey’s reading of Jesus as “righteous sufferer” is correct, then even more is in play and at stake in Jesus’ final words.

Crucifixion and the Persistence of Evil

In Creation and the Persistence of Evil, Jewish biblical scholar and theologian Jon D. Levenson attempts to draw out a latent impulse from Jewish tradition, namely the belief that God’s mastery over chaos and evil is not yet fully realized.[5] By tracing back to some of the earliest fragments of poetry in the Hebrew Bible, Levenson makes the case that the earliest Israelites conceived of God as having won a great victory over chaos in the Chaoskampf that preceded the act of Creation. In it, God subdues and limits chaos, but does not destroy it; from chaos, rather than nothing, he creates and orders.[6] The Hebrew Bible recognizes that chaos and evil still exist and can threaten creation at any time.[7] Therefore there is a certain “theurgic character” to the liturgy of Israel, especially in the psalms of lament, that calls God to be moved, reawakened and to re-activate his mastery over chaos when chaos impinges upon the goodness of creation and causes the righteous to suffer unjustly.[8]

Given Mark’s characterization of Jesus as paradigmatic righteous sufferer, it is likely that Mark was aware of this tradition within Israel and drew upon it in his depiction of the dying messiah and his final words.[9] Crucified unjustly, Jesus stands yet righteous before God and the authorities, and for God’s apparent absence Jesus calls him to account. At the very place that God is not, Jesus hangs dying, and offers up a final challenge: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is here that Mark sounds the strongest echo of Psalm 22, citing its first line in the last words of Christ calling God to draw near and make right what has gone wrong in the face of great chaos. The narrative has already explicitly connected the death of Jesus with his resurrection in the passion predictions (8:31; 9:30; 10:33-34), thus the audience understands the coming resurrection of Jesus to be God’s answer to his unjust suffering and the seeming victory of the forces of chaos.

                [1] Thomas Boomershine, “Mark, the Storyteller: A Rhetorical-Critical Investigation of Mark’s Passion and Resurrection Narrative” (PhD diss, Union Theological Seminary, 1974), 218.

                [2] See Mark Goodacre, “Scripturalization in Mark’s Crucifixion Narrative” in Geert Oyen and Tom Sheperd (eds.), The Trial and Death of Jesus: Essays on the Passion Narrative in Mark (Leuven: Peters, 2006): 33-47.

                [3] Holly J. Carey,  Jesus’ Cry from the Cross: Towards a First-Century Understanding of the Intertextual Relationship between Psalm 22 and the Narrative of Mark’s Gospel (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 187.

                [4] Ibid., 128.

                [5] Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), xxv.

               [6] Ibid.

               [7] Ibid., 21.

               [8] Ibid., xxvi.

               [9] Dominic Rudman has made a similar case in his Crucifixion as Chaoskampf in which he claims that the gospels’ portrayal of Jesus’ death bear with them the full weight of a Chaoskampf myth. His case rests on three legs, the darkness that descends (15:33), the death of Jesus as victory of chaos (15:37) and the tearing of the temple curtain (15:38). His first two points are convincing enough, but his emphasis on the temple as “microcosm of creation” is not well placed against the backdrop of Mark who seems to view the temple more negatively. See Dominic Rudman, “The Crucifixion as Chaoskampf: A New Reading of the Passion Narrative in the Synoptic Gospels” in Biblica 84, no. 1 2003, 102-107.


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