Seccombe-identity politics and the crucifixion

Seccombe, in The King of God’s Kingdom, deals a with what I would call the identity politics of the crucifixion. He has entitled sections about the sentencing of Jesus:

The Judgment of the Jews

The Judgment of the Romans

The Judgment of the World

The problem is that the driving force behind the crucifixion, even though Pilate and his Roman Cohort carried it out, was the Jewish religious and political officials in Jerusalem. Or, as John’s gospel often puts it, the Jews.

Seccombe points out that even the Talmud had apparently forgotten that the Romans were even involved. So both Christians and Jews tended to assume that this really was something the Jews had done.

In our time, after the genocide against Jewish people carried out during WWII, we need to be more careful in what we say. The New Testament over all is very much aware of Gentile involvement in both the crucifixion of Jesus and the persecution of Christians. But for obvious reasons, the New Testament writers and preachers who lived under Roman authority did not usually go around calling the Romans Christ-killers.

The guilt involved in the crucifixion falls upon individuals more than ethnic identities. The New Testament’s detailing of conversations between Jesus and priests, Jesus and Pilate, and Jesus and Herod points to the fact that individuals rather than collectives acted in Jesus’ condemnation Also the stories about Peter and Judas show that guilt struck close to home for the early church.

But the reality which stares at us from Jesus’ death is that each person involved at the point that their own self-interest conflicted with the mission of Jesus, acted to secure those interests and left Jesus to die. It was just this fear and self-interested unwillingness to take a stand against evil which made the holocaust possible. Whether we look at Judas or Peter, at Caiaphas or Herod or Pilate, at the Pharisees or the crowds, all were out to secure their own interests and their actions in the end conspired to destroy the only man who seemed to have everybody’s interest but his own at heart (p. 551).

But Seccombe does not shy away from the notion that Israel made a fateful decision. It was the Sadducian aristocracy and the Pharisees who spearheaded the conspiracy against Jesus. It was not Jews as an ethnic group or a religion. But when, in Matthew’s gospel, after Pilate has washed his hands the crowds say, “His blood be upon us and our children”, this does portend the national destruction of Israel that happened about 40 years after the crucifixion.

This same judgment does not fall upon the Gentiles, according to Seccombe. Although–for me– one of the forgotten values of the Book of Revelation is that there judgment does fall upon Rome and the Gentiles as well.

At least Seccombe dealt with this problem without conveniently forgetting about certain passages.

However, I fear that his approach leaves open the door to a replacement theology, a notion that the Jewish court in the early first century spoke for the nation and caused them to lose their place as the people of God to be replaced by the church.

The New Testament seems to speak paradoxically about this. You have the idea that the death of Jesus has undone the need for the sacrificial system that was at the heart of Temple-based Judaism (the Book of Hebrews). Of course, modern Judaism does not practice animal sacrifice anymore than Christianity does. On the other hand you have the insistence that God has not rejected his people and that God does not revoke his call or covenant (Romans 11:29).

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Seccombe-Pilate’s reluctance

For Lent, I am reflecting on the events leading up the Jesus’ crucifixion by reading part of David Seccombe’s The King of God’s Kingdom.

With Jesus’ appearance before Pilate, we get connected with secular history. Pilate seems like a ruthless, self-interested figure from all we know outside the Bible. So it is a surprise that Pilate goes out of his way to get Jesus released.

Perhaps this is what went wrong with the priest’s intention to quickly execute Jesus before the crowds knew anything about it. They seem to have expected Pilate to rubber-stamp their death sentence.

Of course, one approach would be to say that, because the secular accounts of Pilate do not seem to match the gospel’s characterization of him, the gospels have made Pilate’s reluctance up.

However the Matthew gives us a reason for Pilate to have altered his stance toward Jesus. His wife sent him a message that he should have nothing to do with Jesus because of a dream. Now, if Pilate was a superstitious man, this would make sense. Seccombe thinks we should not dismiss Matthew’s account of this. It is hard to see a reason for Matthew to have included this information unless he actually knew something.

In any case, Pilate is said to have told the priests to take Jesus and deal with him according to their own law. This leads to the discussion of whether the Jewish authorities had the power to put someone to death. They certainly did use it in the case of James, the brother of Jesus. Also the Book of Acts tells us that they sentenced Stephen to death by stoning. There was an inscription in the Temple that threatened even Romans with death by stoning should they enter the forbidden inner courts.

But John 18:31 says that the Romans reserved this power to themselves alone. Seccombe says that this accords with what was the case in the rest of the empire. Theoretically the Romans exclusively held what was called the power of the sword (Romans 13:4). However, governors sometimes turned a blind eye to the actions of local authorities. So Seccombe wonders what the subtext was of Pilate’s request for the priests to deal with this according to their own laws.

One possibility is that he was giving them implicit permission to stone Jesus.

Another is that he is telling them to inflict their harshest penalty short of the death penalty.

So why did the priests insist that Pilate act? Seccombe suggests that, because stoning was a penalty that required group participation and the crowds were for Jesus, an attempt to stone him could backfire. Or, Seccombe speculates, they might have feared Jesus’ reputation as a miracle worker. Maybe he could call down fire from heaven or something.

More theologically, the priests may have had in mind the passage from Deuteronomy 21:23, that says anyone hanged on a tree is cursed. If Jesus hanged then his whole ministry and reputation would unravel as falling under a curse. At least, they may have hoped this. Paul, before his call, may have discounted Jesus for this reason (Galatians 3:13).

So the priests begin to bring political charges against Jesus. But Pilate knew Jesus was not a revolutionary. According to Luke, he sent him to Herod. Seccombe thinks Luke has this because he was privy to information from Herod’s court (Luke 8:3 and Acts 13:1).

The gospels agree in various ways that Pilate tried to release Jesus.

The priests bring in Pilate’s obligation as a friend of Caesar. This was a weak point for Pilate. “Friend of Caesar” was a term that had to do with political patronage in the empire. Pilate held his position because he was a friend of Caesar.

Roman historians know that Pilate got his position through Sejanus, a close adviser to Tiberius. However, Seccombe dates the crucifixion to the year 30. If, as I think is likely, the actual date is 33 then Sejanus has already fallen and Pilate’s position was particularly weak.  (In my view, the fourteen plus three years between Paul’s call and the Jerusalem conference from Galatians 1:18 and 2:1 force scholars who assume Luke wrote Acts in chronological order to date the crucifixion too early.)

So in the end Pilate gave in and ordered the crucifixion. To passive aggressively get back at the Jewish authorities for manipulating him, he had an ironic charge affixed above the cross, mocking the accusers claims that Jesus was political. In three languages Pilate had written, “The King of the Jews.”

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Word Press is being very slow on my system this morning.  So we will see how this goes.

In my Lenten reading of David Seccombe’s The King of God’s Kingdom, I have reached the night before the crucifixion.

The night hearing described in Mark 14:53 ff. and its parallels gives the gospel writers the opportunity to show that evidence against Jesus was hard to pin down. The witnesses called could not identify a “smoking gun.” Seccombe attributes this to Jesus having taught in parables. His words about destroying the temple and rebuilding it, for instance, struck some people as figurative and others as a threat.

Apparently the hearing was not going as the high priest had planned. So he asked Jesus directly to state his view on whether he was the Messiah or not. Jesus replied by quoting the Bible, combining Psalm 110:1 with an apocalyptic passage from Daniel 7.

The high priest ruled that this was blasphemy and deserving of death. What Jesus had done was to take a standard Psalm about the political rule of David and his descendants and combine it with a vision about the “Son of Man” appearing with God in the clouds and receiving a kingdom that included all people and all nations. In the context of Daniel this linked with the resurrection of the dead and the ultimate judgment of the nations.

Now Jesus had regularly spoken of himself indirectly as the Son of Man. This could simply mean a human being or a mortal. The prophet Ezekiel seems to have used it that way to speak of himself. But in Daniel, the Son of Man is a heavenly figure who appears at the right hand of God exercising divine power over mankind. So in Mark Jesus finally clarifies his use of the term and is condemned for claiming this. The abuse and mockery in Mark 14:65 show scorn for these grand claims by someone who was clearly just human and weak.

Mark has Jesus answer the question directly. When the priest asks if he is the Messiah, he says, “I am.” But in Matthew Jesus says something that usually is translated “You have said so. But I say to you. . .”  The sense of this probably is “Those are your words, but these are my words.”

Seccombe thinks Jesus probably did not come out and say “I am” as Mark tells it, but something closer to Matthew’s version.

Apocalyptic thinking was in the air in Jesus’ day. So why did this use of apocalyptic language precipitate a declaration that Jesus deserved death? Seccombe says:

“Presumably many members of the Council believed that sooner or later there would be a man for whom some of these things were true. But to hear them from the lips of one who had already alienated himself from the ruling and religious establishment, and who now stood bound before them, disheveled from the effects of a long day, his agony in the garden, arrest, and the beatings he had already been subjected to, was too monstrous for rational analysis” (P. 542).

John’s account has Jesus appear before the high priest’ s father-in-law, Annas, rather than the high priest himself. Seccombe points out that John or the Beloved Disciple seems to have had some kind of a relationship with the high priest (John 18:15). This is strange. But, if true, it gives greater credibility to the details in John’s version.

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Seccombe-the arrest

I have come to the arrest of Jesus in my Lenten reading of David Seccombe’s The King of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus went to a particular olive grove to spend the night. Judas knew where that was. The authorities wanted to find Jesus without the crowds around him at night when most of the folks attending Passover were sleeping.  Judas provided the police the valuable service of giving them Jesus in exactly the situation they needed. David Seccombe thinks that, if things had gone according to plan, Jesus would have already been on the cross by the time people began to wake up.

The Gospel of Mark reports a night trial. This was irregular. Trials at night or on feast days were banned in the Mishnah. Also the regular order would have been for the carrying out of a sentence to be held over for a day. However, Seccombe believes the jist of the Talmud report that Jesus already had been under a death sentence of six weeks. So the authorities might not have felt any need to follow the rules that applied to the determination of guilt or innocence. These proceedings would have been for the purpose of bringing about and justifying an execution that already was set.

The night trial has been questioned. But if the late-night arrest and the narrative about Peter’s denials are true, then the night trial is part of that scenario. Peter’s denials have historical credibility. You can’t imagine the early church making up a story that made its first leader look that bad.

I will deal with the trials or interrogations later. Now I am just showing why the police came for Jesus late at night.

According to the three synoptic gospels the police who came were temple police. But according to John some troops from the Roman cohort came for Jesus with them (John 18:3). The Romans were already involved. Seccombe once again thinks John knew the true situation. This is one reason for Seccombe’s idea that the plan was to get the execution started quietly and at night.

The authorities feared rioting or even revolutionary violence once their move against Jesus became known. They wanted to present Jerusalem with the death of Jesus as an accomplished fact. (If I remember correctly, this is what Paula Fredericksen believes actually happened. The story of the public execution of Jesus, for her, is a drama developed by the church.)

So armed police and military units came upon Jesus in the night. Jesus suppressed the impulse of the disciples to resist. The story says that Peter raised his sword. But Jesus ordered him to put it away. In that olive garden Jesus had come to the firm decision to do his Father’s will, to drink the cup that he called his blood.

Seccombe notes that we have little to tell us anything about the motivation of Judas. At Bethany a woman had anointed Jesus with expensive oil and Judas had complained that the money could have been spent on the poor. John says that Judas did not really care about the poor but had been misappropriating the common funds (money provided by Jesus’ women followers according the Luke 8:3). The fact that Judas took the priest’s silver points to greed.

However, there are reasons to think the motive might have been more complicated. Judas tried to return the silver. He took his own life in the aftermath of it all. So, even though it looks like he should have known exactly what would result from his actions, the crucifixion dismayed him.

Seccombe doesn’t go into theories that Judas was trying to force Jesus hand or make his arrest a catalyst for revolution. He just calls Judas the “disillusioned disciple” and thinks the sharp exchange with Jesus over the anointing oil in Bethany was some kind of turning point.

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I am reflecting on the events of the last days of Jesus’ ministry as presented by David Seccombe in his The King of God’s Kingdom.

The synoptic gospels describe the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Many have noticed the contrast between Jesus and, say, Socrates. When compelled to drink the hemlock, Socrates accepted his fate philosophically. He died what would have been a model death for a Greek philosopher. Jesus crying out against his fate probably was a small part of what made Jesus a scandal to the Greek way of thinking.

Yet the struggle of Jesus seems like that of a real human being in the thick of existence, not a philosopher above the fray.

Seccombe says the words Mark uses for how Jesus felt (KJV: “sore amazed and very heavy” Mark 14:33) describe intense emotion and something more than the natural grief you would expect him to feel about what lay ahead. Jesus saw something more in his approaching death than his personal demise. Seccombe recalls how on the way to the cross Jesus said to the women who wept for him that they should not weep for him but for themselves and their children (Luke 23:28). So part of his pain may stem from his prophetic anticipation of the Jewish War and the coming plight of the people of Jerusalem.

But there was plenty of reason to weep for himself as well: the betrayal of one of his disciples, the indifference of others who slept while he agonized, the whole back-handed conspiracy against him that was about to come to a culmination. One wonders if he foresaw the actual way things would go. Did he know he would not be stoned, but crucified, for instance?

He cried out against it all. He prayed that he might somehow avoid this conclusion to his ministry, that God would take this “cup” away.


I always find it interesting that the Letter to the Hebrews says:

During his earthly life  Christ offered both requests and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his devotion (Hebrews 5:7 NET Bible).

He was heard?!!

Hebrews is clearly seeing this from the point of view of the resurrection. But for spiritual and devotional purposes during Lent we should probably not jump ahead too quickly.

Seccombe is clear that we should not think of the agony of Jesus as just “a piece of theatre”.  Jesus could have chosen to answer his own prayer and slip out of Jerusalem. The agony in the garden was a facing of the temptation to turn away from his mission and calling.

One thinks of Paul saying in Philippians 2 that Jesus did not  grasp at equality with God, but became obedient to the point of death.

Seccombe says:

He saw the worst and felt the pull of life as strongly as anyone ever felt it, and yet chose to go with God (p. 535).


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There is no mention of the actual lamb at the last supper, but when Jesus took bread and called it his body, and wine and called it his blood, he alluded to it. In inviting his disciples to eat and drink Jesus made them participants in the forgiveness and life which he saw would flow from his sacrifice, just as he had intimated in his discourse on the ‘bread from heaven’. . . (p. 527).

That is from David Seccombe’s The King of God’s Kingdom.

I basically agree with this. You could fault him for depending too much on John and Paul. The discourse about bread is from John and probably is constructed on some things Jesus actually said. But it is hard to reconstruct the thought of the historical Jesus from it.  And the idea of “participation” comes from Paul (1 Corinthians 10:16).

But in the main, I think he is on solid ground, especially when he says that “Jesus took bread and called it his body, and wine and called it his blood.” Most of the words of Jesus come to us through a filter of decades of tradition as his words were passed on for the purpose of teaching in the church. But his words at the table must have begun to be repeated within weeks, if not days of the crucifixion. How old is the rite of eating bread and drinking wine as a part of Christian worship?

The Book of Acts puts it right at the beginning (Acts 2:42) and there is no reason to doubt that. Therefore, the church must have begun to quote what Jesus said at the Last Super almost immediately. So these are probably the most certain words of Jesus that we have.

So what did Jesus mean by his words? Seccombe thinks that, though it is not explicit, Jesus must have been thinking of the Suffering Servant poems in Isaiah. He quotes Isaiah 53:10-11. This is likely. There are many pointers to the probability that Jesus’ thinking included a unique interpretation of those poems and an application of them to the notion of the messiah.

The idea that suffering and sacrifice might lead to forgiveness and renewal is an impediment for contemporary Western people. Of the people who say they are spiritual but not religious, many have a problem with religious symbolism and ideas having to do with sacrifice. We want mercy and grace without sacrifice.

But Jesus was a Jew celebrating Passover. He purposely came to Jerusalem for Passover. For each family who participated in the temple rite, this involved slitting the throat of a lamb, draining blood into a bowl and having a priest throw the blood on the altar. You cannot take Jesus’ calling the wine his blood out of that context.

So Seccombe says,

Schweitzer, and more recently Wright, are firm on this point: a sacrificial doctrine of Jesus’ death was not something which made its appearance later; Jesus himself pursued his ministry and moved towards his death under ‘doctrinal’ influences: he believed that God wanted him to bear the guilt of the nation by means of his own death, so he moved his life in that direction (p. 529).

I think it is helpful to have someone like Seccombe remind us of this. He teaches in South Africa. He is familiar with the fact that animal sacrifice is not something only practiced in the ancient past. He knows that in many developing nations it is still common in the countryside and among some of the cultures and religions. He makes the interesting claim that if it were not for Jesus, animal sacrifice would be as common today as it was in the ancient world (p. 530).

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Remembering Fred Craddock

Someone once told me that a sermon of mine seemed like a Fred Craddock sermon.  I could not have received a higher compliment.  But it wasn’t true.  Craddock stood above us all. (He was not a tall man.  So the using words like “above us all” and “giant” are ironic, kind of an inside joke.)

Dr. Fred Craddock was a preacher and teacher of preachers.  I never took a class from him.  But I attended many workshops and similar events led by him.  And I often heard him preach.

He died last week at the age of 86.  There is an appreciative article by Stephen Cuss at the Jesus Creed blog.  It is called “Craddock the Giant”.

Cuss gives 8 lessons he learned from Craddock.  #6 has to do with biblical interpretation:

Not just “what does the text say” but “what does this author want us to notice?”  Before Craddock, I’d never thought much about the difference between Matthew and Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, but since Craddock, I always ask this vital question and it always brings the text more alive.

So the diversity of scripture becomes a help, rather than a road block.  The different authors of the Bible want you to notice different things.  It is faithful to the text to bring out the differences.

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