Friday, June 21, 2013

Post Mortem Epiphany

Jesus, with His cross, was led to His fate; crucifixion. Hung there between a couple thieves, Jesus was ever the mild servant of God, taking insults graciously and granting Salvation to a repentant thief. From noon to 3 P.M., the sun stopped shining, and Jesus asked why God had forsaken Him. Then Jesus died, the Temple's curtain was torn, there was an earthquake, and dead holy men were resurrected.

Post Mortem Epiphany
You do not know what you have got until it is gone. Or so it is often said. And it just so happens that that realization of loss is what we find portrayed by some unlikely sources immediately after Jesus' death. Let us take a look at the reactions of those standing by Jesus after His last breath.

Matthew 27:54-56, Mark 15:39-41, Luke 23:47-49, and John 19:31-37 reveal the reactions of people near Jesus at the time of His death. Let us begin this study with the first written Gospel of the set; Mark. Starting with Mark 15:39, we read:
And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard His cry and saw how He died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!" NIV
So this is a centurion's reaction, a division leader in the Roman army. Implicitly, this man was Roman, and that makes it very likely both that he was polytheistic and that he recognized Caesar as divine. So it is strange, to say the least, that the centurion would claim that Jesus was the Son of the singular, Jewish God. However, it is possible that he had heard the story of Jesus and had come to believe. (As you may remember, earlier in the Gospels there were reports of other believing centurions.)

Note what had convinced this centurion of the "truth": hearing Jesus' cry and seeing how He died.

Now, "how He died" may be intended to imply the greater picture of how Jesus reacted to being put on the cross, how He handled the taunting and insults while on the cross, the miraculous three hours of darkness prior to His death, etc.

However, being coupled with the conjunction "and" to the cry that Jesus had made suggests a more immediate relationship; as in literally how Jesus died. It is probably safe to assume that this would not have been the first crucifixion that the centurion had witnessed, and there was something particularly different about the way that Jesus died. Perhaps it was the relative speed of Jesus' death, or an expression of peace and calm on His face, or a gentle transition from life to death, or even the possible witnessing of Jesus' spirit leaving His body. This is just speculation, given the lack of detail in the account, but the words seem to convey that there was something truly special in the manner in which Jesus died.

Mark 15:40-41 adds that there were some women watching from a distance, including a couple Mary's and Salome, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, and "cared for His needs". Well, a man has got needs, you know. ;-) Despite the fact that this implies gender roles where certain burdens are placed on women as a higher priority than the "important work" which the male Disciples were doing, and despite the fact that it is odd for multiple women to have to care for Jesus' needs alone as opposed to having the women portrayed as helping with the needs of the larger group, specifically noting the contribution of these women is a respectable and honorable sentiment.

Yet with the three hours of darkness preceding Jesus' death, it is a little odd that more people than just the centurion are not recognized as having the same epiphany that he did.

Matthew 27:54 changes the scene a little to be more consistent with his uniquely reported earthquake and mini-zombie apocalypse:
When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, "Surely He was the Son of God!" NIV
So now we have the centurion and his accompanying soldiers claiming that Jesus was the Son of God. And why? Because of something special in the way He died? No. Because they had been frightened by the darkness and the earthquake.

Like Mark, Matthew 27:55-56 also mentions women, who had cared for Jesus' needs, watching from a distance, including a couple Mary's and the mother of the Zebedee brothers.

Luke may have been a better editor than Matthew, in that he appears to have noticed some of the issues with Mark's version. Luke 23:47-48 reported::
The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, "Surely this was a righteous man." When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. NIV
So Luke changed the centurion's expression into a more realistic one; not that he recognized Jesus as the Son of God, but that he recognized (presumably based on both Jesus' actions and God's reaction of stopping the sun from shining for three hours) that Jesus must have been a righteous man who was now wrongfully crucified.

It was not only the centurion, or his soldiers, who had this epiphany. The rest of the crowd who had come to gaze at this spectacle had this same revelation, as is implied by the report of them beating their breasts; an cultural display of mourning, and possibly repentance, as observed in Isaiah 32:12-13, Jeremiah 31:19, Ezekiel 21:12, and Nahum 2:7.

This mourning crowd was not made up of Jesus' followers, as, according to Luke 23:49, those who believed in Jesus were watching from a distance, along with the women who had followed Jesus. Luke oddly left out the bit about these women caring for Jesus' needs. Perhaps he also recognized how strange it appeared that multiple women were addressing Jesus' needs, or may by he just got tired of copying.

Now for something completely different. In John 19:31-37, there is no epiphany, or even a centurion for that matter. Instead, submitting to a request from the Jews, Pilate ordered for the crucified people to have their legs broken and to be taken down from their crosses during the Passover Sabbath (John 19:31). Strangely, the soldiers carrying out that task removed the thieves on either side of Jesus first (John 19:18) as opposed to progressing across the lineup of hanging men in a serial pattern (John 19:32).

When they finally came to Jesus (in the non-religious sense of those words), they just then discovered that He was dead (John 19:33). This is an huge contradiction to the Synoptic Gospels which record people reacting to Jesus' blatant moment of passing! But then, in John's version, Jesus' moment of death was much more reserved, having Jesus simply bow His head and give up His spirit, which would have been much easier to miss (John 19:30).

Anyway, the soldiers reacted like many guys do when they come across a corpse unexpectedly; they poked it with a stick. In this case, the stick was a spear, and they punctured Jesus' side with it, reportedly causing water and blood to rush out (John 19:34).

The next verse in John is what I would call a classic liar's tell. In John 19:35 we read:
The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. NIV
It is true. You can know that it is true, because the guy who saw it gave this report, and his report is the truth, because he knows that he tells the truth. Oh please. Why is it that all of the rest of the preceding Gospel of John has been given without any claim of a truth-telling eyewitness until this one point? I will tell you why:

It is a lie. If it were true, there would have been more than just this one eyewitness to make the claim that this sequence of events actually occurred, like the group of Jesus-following witnesses watching from a distance reported by the other three Gospels. Furthermore, there would be no need to vehemently claim that it was true any more than for any of the other far-more-unbelievable events recorded previously in this Gospel. Sure, Jesus walked on water and raised Lazarus back to life after he had been dead for days, but this whole being stabbed on the cross and having water and blood come out of the opening, well, I am going to need a little proof for that...

Now, why would anyone lie about something like this? Well, to fulfill Scripture, of course! Any shred of apparent credibility to support your lie is always advantageous, and prophesy provides one of the best forms of that credibility. And if you are wiling to lie to make a connection to prophesy, why not tweak the Scriptures to make a prophetic match too?

John 19:36 tells us that these events transpired to fulfill the prophesy that "not one of His bones will be broken". Even favorably assuming that none of the bones in Jesus' ankles or wrists were broken in the process of being nailed to the cross (which is highly unlikely), the problem is that there is no such prophesy. The nearest match comes from Psalm 34, which speaks of how God protects righteous people in general. Such is the sentiment we find in Psalm 34:19-20:
The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all;
He protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken. NIV
If the generalized sentiment is not strong enough to realize that this "prophesy" is not applicable, then consider that it says that God would save people from their troubles, which is pretty much the opposite of God letting an innocent, righteous person get killed on the cross.

John 19:37 provides another prophetic match; that "They will look on the one they have pierced." At least this is an actual prophesy as opposed to being just part of a song. This comes from Zachariah 12:10, and, of the little bit of the verse copied here, John almost gets the wording correct. More significant than a minor word adjustment is the fact that it is this prophesy has been severed from its context to make the match. Zachariah 12 is a prophesy about God turning the leaders and people of Jerusalem into an unstoppable, militarily conquering force which consumes "all the surrounding peoples" as part of a counter-attack from the city of Jerusalem being under siege. The verse right before this noted prophesy, Zachariah 12:9, has God defiantly claim:
On that day I (God) will set out to destroy all the nations that attack Jerusalem. NIV
If I know my history correctly, that did not happen the day that Jesus died, nor any time after that.

Furthermore, if you read the remainder of the prophesy, Zachariah 12:10-14, what you encounter is each of the individual clans of Israelites in mourning; a reference to the old national layout when the Jewish clans each occupied a different region of the Promised Land.

And why are they weeping? Because they have done God wrongfully. If you know the background behind this prophesy, the reason that Jerusalem was under siege was as a punishment doled out by God for the people breaking the provisions of His covenant. So when God steps in to aid His Chosen People, as is foretold in the prophesy, it is then they will come to the full recognition of how poorly they have treated God, and they will appropriately weep in repentance.

Bringing this study to a close, Let us review. We have seen contradictions from one account to the next regarding what actually happened when Jesus died, a liar's tell in the claim of truth, and misapplied prophesies used to help support the claim of Jesus' Messiah status. None of these issues, individually or collectively, indicate that Jesus was not crucified. However, any claim beyond that should obviously be given a healthy dose of scrutiny.

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