Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?
Here we have the only words that Jesus spoke from the cross in the Books of Matthew and Mark: At noon the whole country was covered with darkness, which lasted for three hours. At about three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?”
I know, he says other things in the books of Luke and John. Really nice things about forgiveness and paradise, but in the Books of Matthew and Mark these are the only words he speaks from the cross – and Biblical scholars are not certain about the exact meaning of the phrase. In fact, they aren’t even sure what language he was using (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_Jesus). It’s a mystery.
So the first thing I notice is how blithely Matthew comes up with a definitive explanation of these unknowable Jesus’ words, even though the story also tells us that the spectators are confused about what he was saying:
Some of the people standing there heard him and said, “He is calling for Elijah!” One of them ran up at once, took a sponge, soaked it in cheap wine, put it on the end of a stick, and tried to make him drink it. But the others said, “Wait, let us see if Elijah is coming to save him!” (Matthew 27:47-49).
It says that the people who were there couldn’t understand him and thought he was either calling of Elijah or asking for a drink. But Matthew knows what Jesus was saying, even though Matthew wasn’t even there! He takes the liberty of definitively translating this phrase to mean, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?”
I’d like to know how he came up with this… well, actually I DO know. When something is a mystery people always seem to feel the need to come up with an explanation. Matthew felt the need, so he just came up with something up that made sense to him and wrote it down as though it were fact. Problem solved. But not as far as I’m concerned. As far as I’m concerned it’s still a mystery. Matthew may have been comfortable with this interpretation but I am not.
Of Myths and Men
Greeks and Romans liked myths and fables and parables. Webster’s defines a “myth” as “a story that was told in an ancient culture to explain a practice, belief, or natural occurrence.” After the crucifixion and resurrection, Paul and the other Apostles felt compelled to explain the circumstances surrounding his death. The people wanted an explanation about what had happened and there wasn’t anything like scientific method during those times, so they did what was natural to the people of that time. They created various myths and fables, kind of like modern scientists create hypotheses.
For example, take the myth of the Greek hero/god Hercules. They said he was the son of a union between Zeus, the most powerful Greek god, and a mortal woman. Hercules was hated by Zeus’ wife Hera, who sabotaged him and the result was that he was forced to live on earth in a human body. He was redeemed only after he completed 12 heroic tasks and burned himself up in a sacrificial fire so his that spirit could be released from his body. Zeus then forgave him and awarded with a place within the pantheon of gods on Mt. Olympus. The Greeks regarded Hercules as a great defender, protector and heroic example. They regarded him as one of their gods.
Atonement Theories: Take Your Pick
A couple of years ago I participated in a small group study called Making Sense of the Cross by David Lose, a leading Lutheran theologian and an expert on Biblical preaching. In this study Lose explains that there are three major “atonement theories” (stories/myths) that have been accepted by Christendom to “explain” the crucifixion of Jesus.
The earliest myth was called Ransom and Victory. This was the paradigm for the first thousand years of Christian history. It emphasizes the titanic struggle between God and Satan for the fate of humanity, a struggle that culminates in God’s triumph through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. The premise is that Satan demands a sacrifice because of the depravity of man (because of original sin in the Garden of Eden), so God tricks the devil by offering Jesus as the sin offering. Satan accepts the offering for the sin of mankind, but then he finds out that Jesus is without sin so he in under a legal obligation has to let him go, along with all the rest of humanity. This is essentially the story that’s told in the death and resurrection of Aslan in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, with Aslan representing Christ and the White Witch representing Satan. The cross becomes a symbol of triumph.
The second explanation, or myth, is called Substitution, Satisfaction, and Sacrifice. This theory was developed by a theologian named Anselm who was born in 1033. Anselm felt that the Ransom and Victory myth gave the devil way too much power relative to God, so he came up with another explanation. He said that God is like a powerful King who demands absolute loyalty and, as is the case with kings, disloyalty is punishable by repayment (satisfaction) or death (sacrifice). Humanity can’t repay the debt of sin and God can’t forgive (as a matter of honor) so he sends himself to earth in the form of Jesus. Because Jesus is God, Jesus can pay God back. And because Jesus is human, his payment counts for all humanity as well (substitution). So there you have it – Substitution (by Jesus), Satisfaction (happy God), and Sacrifice (death on the cross). The cross becomes a symbol of justice.
The third explanation is called Example and Encouragement. This one is a little more rational and a little less mythic. Abelard was born about 50 years after Anselm and he introduced a different theory. Abelard didn’t buy the idea that killing Jesus could be a good thing. He said it was kind of like two wrongs making a right – we sin, but we kill to make it right. He also believed that the other two theories made all of Jesus’ teachings irrelevant because the salvation of humanity was taking place on a mythological cosmic level. Abelard rejected any notion of God needing a blood sacrifice in order to forgive sin, as well as the idea that he is generally angry with humanity. Abelard said that Jesus died on the cross to show us what sacrificial, unconditional love looks like so that we might follow his example, obey his teachings, and love each other deeply. The cross is then a symbol of martyrdom.
When it Comes to Theories, the More the Merrier
So, back to the scripture. Matthew interpreted Jesus’ mysterious words to mean, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” The interpretation couldn’t be based on factual knowledge, so it is generally accepted that it must have been based on the leading of the Holy Spirit. As a person who is also in touch with the Holy Spirit I guess I have a right to interpret them in my own way if the Holy Spirit tells me something else. And I disagree with Matthew. I don’t think God abandoned Jesus on that cross for even a second, and so I don’t think Jesus would have said this.
In my own opinion, based on the leading of the Holy Spirit, I think Jesus repeating what he said on Day 205: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone the messengers God has sent you! How many times I wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me!”
I think he’s asking humanity when they will give up their violent ways and begin to walk down the path of peace and harmony. I think he’s saying, “My God, my God when will they understand?” (or something to that effect).
And my opinion about the “meaning” of the crucifixion? What atonement theory is my favorite? I would argue that a better approach might be to take it all in at face value and forget about the myths and stories and accept the crucifixion as an indefensible act of violence. I don’t think the cross is a sign of victory because we don’t have victory. I don’t think the cross is a sign of justice because we don’t have justice. And I think martyrdom is highly overrated unless it’s absolutely necessary. Look at the Muslims. They think that if you are martyred for the cause of Islam you get a special place in heaven. It’s the excellence and worthiness of the cause that defines a true martyr, not the punishment. Unfortunately there are a lot of whacko causes out there that don’t qualify, and a lot of people who have persecution complexes. No, martyrdom in and of itself shouldn’t be elevated as a virtue.
So if for some reason I was forced to come up with my own myth, my own story, my own theory (which both you and I are fully entitled to do) to explain this whole fiasco it would be that in the crucifixion Jesus holds a giant mirror up to humanity and asks us if we like what we see. When we see those nail pierced hands and bloody crown and naked disfigured body we see the civilization that we created and continue to perpetuate. We are faced to examine our culture of violence and intolerance where people struggle to dominate and abuse one another in the name of family or ethnicity or country or religion or prosperity or any number of other foolish excuses. That’s my myth. Jesus with the mirror. I call it the Reflection and Repentance theory. In my myth the cross becomes a symbol of human failure. It becomes a symbol of the need for social change.
I remember seeing the 1961 movie King of Kings when I was seven years old. That was when I learned that people killed Jesus. I guess that before I saw the movie I thought he was up there on the cross for a little while, went to sleep for a few minutes or something, and popped up out of a cave with Easter eggs and Peeps for everyone. When I saw that cinematic interpretation of the crucifixion (mild in comparison to The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s wildly popular ode to gratuitous violence), I was shocked and appalled by it. I’m still shocked and appalled by it. And disgusted.
I think humanity needs to ditch the myths, get over its fascination with blood and torture, and just admit that they screwed up, big time. There’s no justification. It shows bad judgment to try to justify such a thing, like when your child dies of cancer and someone tries to comfort you with some mythic explanation like “God took your little one from you because he needs another angel in heaven” instead of saying, “When are we going to start getting serious about investing in cancer research instead of funding foreign wars?” And then rolling up their sleeves and pulling out their checkbooks. Myths explain things away, but they don’t fix them. Like Dr. Phil always says, you can’t fix what you won’t acknowledge.
Mysticism, Message, and Mythology
Ultimately I think there are three main components of Christian theology: mysticism, the message, and mythology.
Mysticism and spirituality are essential characteristics of any religion because they are the defining elements that differentiate a religion from a code of ethics. All religions involve rituals or activities that encourage transcendent experiences that result in inner peace, divine knowledge, physical well-being, and even supernatural abilities. Just because science doesn’t understand these things completely yet doesn’t mean they are not real, which is why we still refer to them as “mystical”.
As for the message of Jesus, I believe it is as brilliant and true and compelling as ever. It is the heart and mind and soul and strength of Christianity. I believe he died in defense of his message. It still captivates the world and the truth of it continues to resonate.
But the mythology part? Not so helpful as far as I can tell. I believe that Jesus defies and transcends explanation. Even the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t officially endorse any of these atonement paradigms I talked about today as the “right” one. Why? Because unlike a lot of evangelical Christians, they don’t confuse myth with fact. They know that there is no definitive “explanation” for the dilemma of the crucifixion. The mythology is the source of a lot of confusion and argument because most of it doesn’t ring true, especially to the uninitiated. You have to be raised with it, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. Unlike the teachings of Jesus himself, which continue to inspire.
Look at it this way. When you feed the poor you change someone’s life for the better. When you love your enemies you change the world. But no one really cares what you believe or who you believe in. It doesn’t make any difference to anyone but you. What really matters is how you live your life and how you spend your time here on earth, and this is the heart and substance of Jesus’ message.
And on the other end of the spectrum there are ultra-liberal Christians who believe that Jesus himself is a myth, that he never actually existed. They follow Jesus solely because they believe in the truth of the message that is attributed to him. As for that paradigm, I agree with Albert Einstein because I think he was a pretty smart guy:
What does this scripture say to you?