Book Review: The Death of Jesus

deathofjesuswedderburnTitle: The Death of Jesus

Series: WUNT 299

Author: Alexander J.M. Wedderburn

Bibliographic info: xv, 193 pp., 31 pp.

Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Mohr Siebeck for the review copy.

In this book, which Wedderburn refers to as “a ragged and rather incomplete ‘swansong'” (xi), he confronts systematic theologians and traditional Christian thinking by issuing the challenge to deal candidly with the disparate and diverse accounts in the New Testament concerning Jesus’ death, particularly Jesus’ own understanding of his impending execution. In this task Wedderburn likens himself to a “somewhat unorthodox cat [being let] loose among some theological pigeons” (xi).

In this review I will first provide a brief summary of what each chapter is about and then give a bit more depth on certain sections and offer up some general thoughts about the book.

Chapter One (pp. 1-46) is the introduction wherein the author discusses various attempts to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ death for us. This is followed with Chapter Two (pp. 47-66) which asks the questions of whether Jesus saw his death coming and, if so, how did he view his death. Chapter Three (pp. 67-87) discusses Jesus’ last meal, with a focus upon the Last Supper traditions in Matthew 26, Mark, 14, Luke 22, and 1 Corinthians 11. In Chapter Four (pp. 89-106) Wedderburn examines the two “highly informative” events about Jesus’ attitude to his death: the prayer in Gethsmane (Mark 14:32-42 par.) and his death cry (Mark 15:34 par.). Chapter Five (pp. 107-28) is on the period of time between Jesus and Paul, specifically looking at the impact of the Easter events and some traditions in Paul (Rom 3:25 and 4:25). Chapter Six (pp. 129-48) focuses upon the folly of the cross as a polemical theme in Paul and its theological implications. Chapter Seven (pp. 149-65) discusses Pauline thought on participation in Christ, being in Christ, and dying with Christ. This includes a focus upon 2 Cor. 5:14 and the notion of Jesus as the representative human being (1 Cor. 15:20-22, 45-49; Rom. 5:12-21). Chapter Eight (pp. 167-82) then tackles the topic of righteousness and justification in Paul. The book ends with a short Epilogue (pp. 183-86), an Appendix (pp. 187-93) on the shorter text in Luke 22:15-19, and the obligatory bibliography and indices.

As already mentioned, the first chapter discusses various attempts at interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ death for us, specifically “in terms of something that happens in the being of God and thus is at least relevant to our perception and understanding of God’s nature or in terms of a manifestation of the nature or ‘shape’ of that divine spirit that is subsequently at work in the world or at least in the Christian community” (30). This includes discussions of various writers including Leonardo Boff, Geoffrey Lampe, Dorothee Sölle, Peter Hodgson, Alistair Kee, John Hick, and, everybody’s favorite, Jürgen Moltmann. I’m quite familiar with Moltmann’s theology and Wedderburn’s discussion of it was quite informed and showed a good familiarity with his theologia crucis.

Wedderburn asks the question of whether the inter-trinitarian relationships in regards to the death of Jesus is an appropriate emphasis for systematic theologians to turn to in order to explicate the NT’s view of soteriology. Instead, Wedderburn suggests that perhaps this trinitarian framework is an impediment to properly understanding what the NT actually says in regards to Jesus’ death and to how he thought of his own death. The rest of the book, in which the author goes on to examine Jesus’ life and teachings in relation to his suffering and death, is an investigation into how Jesus and the NT authors viewed his death.

The second chapter tackles the question of what Jesus’ own thinking was in regards to his death. Did he see it coming? How did he interpret it? This chapter includes discussions of the work of Rudolf Bultmann, Leonardo Boff, and Maurice Casey. Wedderburn says:

At any rate, once Jesus had learnt of the Baptist’s fate it is thoroughly intelligible that he would have reflected on the implications of this for someone like himself whose preaching shared so much in common with that of the Baptist. (51)

Yet:

Firm evidence that Jesus himself reflected on his likely fate in this prophetic tradition is therefore hard to find, however plausible and probable the recent fate of the Baptist may make this suggestion. (52)

On the fate of prophets Wedderburn suggests that Matt. 11:12-14//Luke 16:16 might have bearing. He also looks at Jesus’ predictions of his passion in Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34 (and their parallels), as well as what Mark 10:45b (and its parallels) have on the question of whether Jesus viewed his death as salvific. Wedderburn also notes that “Jesus seems to have seen his impending suffering not as averting woes, but as inaugurating them” (56). This, of course, raises the question: how proper can it be, then, to talk of Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice?

The third chapter discusses the different NT traditions of Jesus’ last meal, with Wedderburn saying that “it seems more prudent to examine the merits of the various versions, aware that none of them may have a monopoly on authenticity” (73). Further along he says that:

At any rate, the Synoptic Gospels and 1 Corinthians yield us, as already noted, two basic forms of the tradition, one in which Matthew and Mark are basically similar, and one where the longer text of Luke shows a marked similarity to the tradition that Paul presupposes in the Corinthian church. (75)

After examining the NT passages on Jesus’ last supper, Wedderburn offers up the following reconstructed form as possibly being the earliest form of Jesus’ words (and it basically corresponds to the shorter text of Luke):

And he said to them: ‘I have very much desired to eat this Passover meal with you before I must suffer. I will not eat it again till the meal finds its fulfillment in God’s kingdom.’ And he took the cup, gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and distribute it amongst yourselves. For I tell you: From now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until God’s kingdom comes.’ And he took bread, gave thanks and distributed it to them with the words: ‘This is my body’. (77)

For the rest of this chapter Wedderburn investigates the questions of what exactly did Jesus mean by those words. Was the meal actually a Passover meal? Is the idea of atonement actually implicit in Jesus’ words? Wedderburn provides this interesting conclusion:

One needs be cautious about reading a soteriological significance into this particular meal and Jesus’ actions performed and words spoken on this occasion. It is true that there would have been a soteriological significance in many, if not all, of the meals that Jesus celebrated, particularly in the company of ‘sinners’ and social outcasts, if his table-fellowship symbolized that they were accepted into his fellowship and could expect to continue to enjoy that fellowship in God’s kingdom. Yet this meal was in this respect different, in that, as far as we know, most of those present, if not all, were members of Jesus’ closest circle of followers. And if one of them sinned by betraying, his participation in the meal was no pledge of salvation, but rather occasioned the dire warning of Mark 14.21 parr. Nor was the meal characterized by joy and celebration, but by foreboding and a sense of impending tragedy. To that extent this meal was less ‘soteriological’ or ‘salvific’ than previous ones during the earlier part of Jesus’ ministry. (86-87)

In regards to Jesus’ own view of his death, Wedderburn concludes in chapter four:

Having adopted a minimalist approach to the question of Jesus’ own interpretation of his death, I came to the conclusion that even if he were clear-sighted enough to see the dangers that were facing him, his purpose in taking his message to Jerusalem was precisely that, to take his message to Jerusalem. And that message was a call to his people to repent and return to their God and to do the will of that God, to welcome the coming of God’s reign among them. Any suggestion of his own death as atoning hardly fits into that pattern of thought. Nor, as we saw, does it fit easily together with Jesus’ reluctance expressed in in [sic] his prayer in Gethsemane to drink the cup of suffering that awaited him. Or at least there is no hint that the drinking of this cup was made any less bitter by the thought that others would be saved thereby. (105)

While I greatly enjoyed the first chapter where Wedderburn takes systematic theologians to task with some hard questions it never really seemed to be integrated with his conclusions throughout the rest of the book. Nevertheless, Alexander Wedderburn has provided a valuable study on the death of Jesus in the New Testament, particularly in regards to the question of how Jesus viewed his own death. Usually historical studies on the NT and modern systematic theology are two entirely separate worlds, so to see these two worlds brought together is a novel and welcomed endeavor.

 

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