I continue to offer reflections on Christ’s passion based on David Seccombe’s The King of God’s Kingdom. Often I do not entirely agree with Seccombe. But I am appreciative of his work and approach, nevertheless.
The synoptic gospels all report that it became dark from noon until three on that Friday. This could not have been an eclipse because Passover was at the time of the full moon when an eclipse cannot take place. Writing in the third century, Julius Africanus knew of a couple earlier writers who spoke of a spell of darkness during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Seccombe says that since these earlier writers were not Christian, they probably did not derive this story from the gospels.
Maybe. But there was an eclipse in 29 CE. So these reports could be confused accounts of that. I don’t think Africanus is much of a support for evangelical apologists.
The darkness in the gospels corresponds to Jesus crying out in the words Psalm 22 that he felt forsaken by God. So the darkness may have been more theological than historical.
Seccombe cites Albert Schweitzer, who thought that Jesus had expected God to intervene in a demonstration of power and save him. When Jesus realized that there would be no miracle, he cried out and asked why God had forsaken him.
But Seccombe thinks this comes from Western culture’s unfamiliarity with the genre of lament. The Psalm is a lament. And Jesus on the cross lifts up his voice in lament. Lament was a form of prayer. The sufferer put into words his agony before God. There are plenty of examples of this in the Hebrew Scriptures. To modern ears laments sound like despair or just whining and blaming God.
The person uttering the lament was not in despair. Rather the lament expressed a progress of faith from consternation at terrible events, to acceptance of God’s providence, to an ultimate reaffirmation of faith.
Seccombe makes good points about lament. But I think a couple of things are worth noting about Jesus’ “cry of dereliction”, First, the only part of the Psalm that Jesus quotes from the cross is the part that expresses consternation. The progress to acceptance and reaffirmation get left to us. Second, it is part of the atmospherics that include darkness, earthquake, verbal abuse, pain, and thirst. The clear intent of the gospels is for us to experience this moment of abandonment with Jesus, not to go jumping ahead to happier days.
The spectacular events that accompany the crucifixion–the darkness, the earthquake, and the curtain in the temple ripping– may be more than stage dressing by the evangelists. I think the crucifixion story arose inseparably from the resurrection story. People knew something terrible and supernatural had happened. But at first the reports were all enmeshed in confusion. The discrepancies seem to me to be not so much inaccuracies as attempts to pull together a bewildering set of testimonies.
In the midst of describing these Good Friday events, Matthew has a parenthesis about what people reported after Sunday:
. . .and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many (27:52-53).
It seems intuitively right to me that this was the state of the jumbled reports that faced the disciples in the early days. People weren’t sure what person they had seen or what graves had been opened. What was clear was that something awesome and divine had taken place. This post-resurrection atmosphere of awe and confusion leaked back into the story of the crucifixion.