A Panorama of the Passion

Crucifix of the Sun out for siteThe JoeBot writes on Confessions of a CyberCasualty:

Pt 1: The Death Day of Jesus Christ

Millions believe that all of human history hinges on a killing that occurred outside the walls of Jerusalem, nearly two thousand years ago. Jesus of Nazareth entered the city on a donkey one day and left carrying a cross. This was an apparent victory for the Pharisees, an incomprehensible tragedy for his disciples, and a brutal spectacle for the multitudes. It was also a great disappointment to Jews clinging to conventional expectations of the Messiah. Their prophets had foretold a Son of David who would liberate the nation of Israel, restoring her to earthly supremacy. Yet there was Jesus — the supposed “King of the Jews” — hanging powerless on a blood-drenched tree.

According to the Evangelists, the wandering rabbi saw it coming. Three chapters of John’s Gospel are devoted to Jesus’ reflection upon his impending demise. It was all part of a master plan—one antithetical to mundane sensibilities. As he told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” (Jn 18:36)

Death by crucifixion was commonplace in ancient societies — from Babylon to the British Isles — but that made the sight of dying criminals hanging on trees no less horrifying. Contemporary observers record numerous variations upon this sadistic art. The ancient Romans considered it to be the absolute worst form of execution — above both decapitation and being burned alive. It was therefore a sentence reserved for the lowest classes, the so-called servile supplicium — the “slaves’ punishment.” Stripped, shamed, beaten, and hung out to dry — only an extreme masochist would call this a winner’s fate.

Yet Jesus’ crucifixion came to be hailed as the most magnificent moment of the greatest story ever told. The scene is reenacted every year in church Passion Plays, enshrined in stained glass the world over, rendered in high-res Hollywood effects, echoed in history’s glorified martyrs. Of course, there are various accounts of what actually transpired that day.

The confusion begins with the Gospels. According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus died at 3pm on the day after Passover — thus placing the Last Supper in its Paschal context. Mark even specifies the time of crucifixion as being 9am. According to John, however, Jesus was crucified after noon, on the day before Passover — thus linking him to the sacrificial lambs being killed in the Temple. (Mk 15:25, 34; Jn 19:14)

Gospel accounts of Jesus’ final words are also contradictory. Matthew and Mark portray a sorrowful Jesus, moaning: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In Luke, Jesus calls out faithfully: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And in John — who consistently refers to Jesus’ immanent death as his “glorification” — Christ proclaims victoriously: “It is accomplished!” before giving up the ghost. (Mt 27:46; Lk 23:46, Jn 19:30)

From there the theologies multiply like gold crucifixes in a Vatican sweatshop. Jesus becomes the ultimate Passover lamb—an unblemished offering slaughtered for carnivorous rites. He is the final human sacrifice for the sins of the world—a ransom to the Devil for all the souls in Hell. For the oppressed, Jesus’ death represents the suffering of innocent men and women throughout humanity’s continuous miscarriage of Justice. Some scholars interpret his death as a fulfillment of the Prophets—others call him a failed Messiah. To skeptics, the Passion seems like a reckless suicide, or a divine infanticide, or just another fanciful myth of a dying and rising god. The more mystical types see a symbol for the individual self surrendering to Absolute Divinity—“Not as I will, but as you will.” (Mt 26:39) And of course, for some the crucifixion is simply a morbid joke. The Word may be one, but its faces are many.

Crucifix of the Sun for site copyEven more baffling—and more often than not, ignored—is Jesus’ demand that one must take up his or her own cross to become his disciple. (Mt 10:38; Lk 14:27) A review of the long history of martyrdom reveals many who did. In a figurative sense, this willing self-sacrifice is shared by the monastics and stringent ascetics who have died to the world in order to find God.

Though Paul of Tarsus is quite confident in his interpretation that Jesus died to atone for the sins of humankind, the Evangelists—recording what Jesus actually said—are not so conclusive. Jesus’ words are often cryptic and paradoxical, generally raising questions rather than granting certainty. Whether the magic of the Nazarene’s sacrifice lies in the moment of his death, the power of its image, or in clever postmortem promotion, one message does appear repeatedly in the Gospels: by denying material preoccupations and the cravings of the body—perhaps even destroying the body outright—one comes closer to God.

In this light, Jesus’ Passion represents a total inversion of typical worldly values. It is common sense that the good things in life are hearty food, a prime sexual partner, fertile land, sufficient fortifications, and nice possessions. As the new Spring dawns, we are reminded of what a bitter sacrifice Jesus truly made by dying at the height of his manhood. Therefore it comes as no surprise that most Christians are content to share his burden vicariously—through ritual drama and elaborate artifice. And who could blame them?

Yet for the attentive student, unsettling doubts remain. What did Jesus mean when he said: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”? (Lk 14:26) Pressed day-by-day to “be somebody,” what are we to make of his cryptic prophesy: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Lk 14:11)

Those who have chosen martyrdom or the monastic path must already know. As for the rest of us, we are left in the comfort of our fleeting securities to quietly wonder.

Pt 2: Images of Jesus Resurrected

Resurrection Outside for siteSo it came to pass that Jesus died and was buried, leaving his followers in total confusion. What would become of them now that their master had gone? If Jesus was not the Anointed One—prophecied to deliver Jerusalem from her oppressors—then who was he?

Numerous answers have been proposed. Over the next two thousand years, Christianity would spread across the entire globe. As the Gospel was told and retold, different perspectives created countless images of Jesus.

As usual, each Evangelist tells his own version of what happened after Mary Magdalene discovered the empty tomb. Suffice it to say that while there are common threads, each account is remarkably different. Yet one peculiar detail—described in both Luke and John—stands out. When Jesus reappears to the mourning disciples, they do not recognize him at first. (Lk 24:16; Jn 20:14)

If Jesus did not look like himself, who did he look like? As it turns out, he would look different to every culture and each individual that encountered the Gospel. More often than not, he began to look just like them.

We first meet Jesus as a wandering Rabbi prone to invective diatribes. His ministry was to the nation of Israel, to whom he interpreted the Torah, and the Gospels consistently frame his life—and death—as a fulfillment of the Prophets. When asked which commandment in the Law is the greatest, Jesus responded:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.”

As with many bright minds of Jewish lore, Jesus was despised by the reigning authorities. They were tired of his constant confrontations, and troubled by bold claims that he was the Son of God. So they did what rulers do best—they had him killed. But they could not kill his words, which would go on to pervade the world.

The Gospel of John describes Jesus as the Word incarnate—the Logos (Gk. λόγος). “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (Jn 1:1, 14) This term was loaded with multiple meanings. In classical Greek thought (particularly Stoicism), Logos refers to the underlying rational principle–synonymous with God or Nature—which directs and sustains the Universe. By identifying Jesus as an incarnation of the Logos, John imagines a divine being—a demigod—that would be familiar to any Greek listener. Jesus’ identity is shifted to meet the theological expectations of Greek culture. Such a refashioning would prove to be quite common as the Gospels spread.

Among the popular mystery schools of the Hellenistic and Roman worlds was the cult of Osiris—the ancient Egyptian god of the dead. According to the myth, Osiris was betrayed and murdered by his wicked brother, Seth, who eventually cut him into pieces, scattering the parts throughout the world. Osiris’ wife, Isis, combed the land for each piece until she had recovered her husband’s body—except his penis, for which she fashioned a replacement. Isis put his dismembered corpse back together and performed magical rituals to give him eternal life. The resurrected Osiris then went on to the Underworld where he judges and rules over the dead.

Many scholars have noted significant parallels between the stories of Osiris and Jesus. Again, to an ancient audience which knew the story of Osiris, the Gospel narrative would be quite familiar. While Christian apologists have claimed that such ancient myths are satanic deceptions or pagan prophecies of the coming Christ, other scholars have suggested that the Gospel narrative is simply a clever retelling of these “dying and rising god” motifs.

Indeed, many scholars have searched extensively for resonant themes between pagan mythology and the Gospel—sometimes grasping at straws, but other times uncovering fascinating parallels. Sometimes one finds strong evidence of pagan influence upon New Testament narratives. But these bridges run both ways—sometimes one finds that the Christ image has been incorporated into the theology of other religions.

The International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)—a popular form of bhakti Vishnu devotion—is a case in point. Worshipped throughout India, Krishna is hailed by his devotees as an incarnation of Vishnu, the Supreme Being. ISKCON, and Vaishnavism in general, is distinctive in its ready acceptance—and occasional incorporation—of the divine representatives of other religions. As such, Jesus is considered to be one of many incarnations of the Supreme Being, sent to the West in order to restore divinity to our part of the world. Faced with the challenge of explaining the variety of religious expressions, Hinduism has generally taken the stance that all religions are different paths leading to the same mountaintop.

For medieval Catholic evangelists pouring into Europe, however, there was only one path to Heaven—and the hostile Aryan tribes they encountered were not on it. These pagan warriors became an unbelievably difficult conversion project for proselytizing priests, who were consistently slaughtered. The chieftain’s devotion to the horned god, Odinn (Woden, Wotan) was unshakeable. Revered as the source of magical Intelligence, poetic Inspiration, and lascivious Intoxication, Odinn was—in modern vernacular—“the bitch’s bastard.”

There was one chink in the god’s armor, however. According to the myths, Odinn gained his knowledge of the runes—the magical Words—by hanging himself from the World Tree. Through this bodily mortification, he was given a new vitality. The authors of The Heliand exploited such parallels magnificently. An ingenious amalgamation of the four Gospels, The Heliand takes great liberties in retelling Jesus’ story, casting him as the most powerful chieftain and his disciples as his warrior “thanes.” The berserker hordes could really feel this one, and the rest is history.

African American liberation theologians have found a kindred spirit in Jesus as well. For them, Jesus represents the vindication of slaves throughout history. Seeing reflections of the Passion in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X—indeed, in every horrific lynching of a Negro—liberation theology finds solace in the promise that the meek shall inherit the earth. Jesus preached that the exalted would be humbled and the humble would be exalted. What greater hope could be offered to the battered spirits of those scarred by the whip of slavery?

Jesus may not have been black—he certainly didn’t look like a white man either. Then again, after the Summer of Love abolished the shave and a haircut, plenty of white guys wound up looking a lot like Jesus. During the Sixties and Seventies, millions of suburbanite teenagers turned on and tuned in to the Golden Rule. As resistance to the war in Vietnam and the class struggles of the Civil Rights Movement intensified, a popular reaction among America’s Baby Boomers was one of total pacifism. To their credit, these kids didn’t just turn the other cheek—they submitted themselves to brutal beatings by riot police. Bristling with a psychedelic Sanhedrin complex, love-crazed hippies jammed flowers into the rifletips of the Establishment’s centurions.

Even the pop icons of the era struck a Jesus Christ pose. Some of the most notable rockstars of the Love Generation died young—and to phenomenal fanfare. Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all passed at the tender age of 27. They had suffered passionately for their art—finding their own view from Golgotha at the bottom of a bottle—and were mourned by their fans with all the breast-beating fervor of devout worshippers at a Passion Play.

Hedonistic rockstar martyrdom has a long tradition. From Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, and Buddy Holly, to the sacred lambs of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, and Tupac Shakur, many music industry fortunes have been accumulated by riding the shock waves of a dying star.

Of course, plenty of fortunes are accumulated every day in the name of Jesus. World-renowned televangelists, megachurch superpastors, and all the various promoters of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” are totally unashamed to claim that worldly wealth is a conspicuous sign of God’s grace. This tradition of holy treasury also has a long history. The Catholic Church has always been a prominent landholder, collecting gold as shrewdly as it does redeemed souls. Where there is a concentration of devout followers, there is almost always a substantial pile of widows’ mites, covered in rust and swarming with moths.

Jesus held a perplexing view of worldly wealth. He once quipped:

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven… [but] with God, all things are possible.” (Mk 10:25-27)

The infinite possibilities of God must have been apparent to those who witnessed Jesus’ spectacular healings, but today most people do not wait for otherworldly miracles. We generally turn to the modern heirs of Hippocrates: the physicians, surgeons, lab technicians, and pharmacologists who heal the ailing body by directly manipulating its biomachinery—and with remarkable success. One would imagine that an ER surgeon would have as much success reattaching the ear of the Roman soldier as Jesus did in Gethsemane—but only if the soldier was insured.

The wonders of science and technology turn the magical powers of ancient lore into commonplace phenomena. Today we enjoy cellphone telepathy—televised scrying—the laying on of ointment-slathered hands–Lazarus revisited in the defibrillator—mountains moved telekinetically by hulking Caterpillars—reality programming via cyber-surfing—the Internet as a virtual Oversoul—even uploaded reincarnation and cryogenic resurrection are tantalizing possibilities on the horizon. Fueled by the Promethean impulse of our post-human age, we fashion ourselves into cybernetic images of Jesus.

Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction is apt:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

So it comes as no surprise that there are people who imagine Jesus as a high-tech extraterrestrial being, descending to Earth from another world to save the human race from self-annihilation. You will find them waiting on the deserted fringes for the Second Coming of the Mothership. Hopefully they won’t wait too long.

With every individual’s introduction to the Gospel, our wandering Nazarene is resurrected as a unique image of Jesus. With any luck, the potential of our human imagination is nowhere near exhaustion. If there is one valid image, it is up to each individual to decide for his or herself which one is the true Jesus. Otherwise, I suppose there is nothing left to do but sit back and enjoy the show.

Resurrection Inside for site

[In Loving Memory of Dr. David Dungan – renowned scholar on the Images of Jesus – my mentor and confidant whom I will forever hold dear.]

Resources

“Crucifixion.” “Passion.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Eds. David Noel Freedman, et al. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Dungan, David L.  A History of the Synoptic Problem: The Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

Ehrman, Bart D.  The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 3rd ed.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Goad, Jim.  The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Johnson, Paul.  The History of Christianity. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1997.

Kurzweil, Ray.  The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Viking, 1999.

Lachman, Gary. Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius. New York: The Disinformation Company, Ltd., 2003.

Murphy, S.J., G. Ronald. The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

“Osiris.” “Resurrection.” The Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Mircea Eliade.  New York: Collier MacMillan, 1987.

Patterson, R. Gary.  Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock n’ Roll Myths, Legends, and Curses. New York: Fireside, 2004.

Peale, Norman Vincent. The Power of Positive Thinking. New York: Prentice Hall, Inc, 1952.

Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta. Bhagavad-Gita: As It Is. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1986.

Smith, Huston.  The World’s Religions. San Francisco: Harper’s, 1991.

Thompson, Dave.  Better to Burn Out: The Cult of Death in Rock n’ Roll. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999.

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