I have recently been reading a series examining the standard Evangelical presentation of the crucifixion, including interpretation of passages relating to the crucifixion in the New Testament, and its place in the broader biblical narrative of salvation history. This ongoing series can be found at drmsh.com, Dr Heiser’s website, and is written by a guest contributor, Dr Ronn Johnson: http://drmsh.com/bibles-big-story/
I am not sure whether I agree with some of the things that Dr Johnson says, but there is much that I do agree with, and I enjoy his methodical thinking and candour. His pieces are an illustration of why the Church needs real scholarship in support of evangelism and pastoral work. They also show us that every Christian needs at least one good friend he can trust with whom he can share doubts, confusion, and ignorance in a common search for the truth. For sure, there are other issues in evangelism besides the presentation and structure of the message – but the presentation and structure do matter.
If we misrepresent what the Gospel is, we may not only put outsiders off Christianity, but also create foundational problems for converts and regular churchgoers. The superficiality of some sermons and bible studies may fail to address very real questions about why Jesus died and what His death and resurrection mean for us in the here and now as well as at the eschaton. The internet allows people to research alternative views, but decent scholarly work can be difficult and expensive to access, and hard for the layman to understand. For the undiscerning, the internet also represents a labyrinth with pitfalls and monsters – false prophets, cultists, and the blind leading the blind. And yes, I am aware that as this is an internet blog post, you could have reason to suspect what you are reading right now.
The crucifixion in the synoptic Gospels has very little in the way of commentary. They tend simply to describe what happened. Before and after the events, Jesus Himself says some things about His mission, such as the passage about giving His life as a “ransom”. The more discursive, explanatory passages come from the Epistles, in places drawing upon the cryptic comments of the Old Testament prophets. Even there, some have doubts about whether particular passages refer to Jesus or not.
For example, in Daniel 9, the famous “seventy weeks” passage, it says, “and after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing” (v26, ESV). This translation, the reader will note, does not take the plunge and definitively say “Messiah” or “Christ”, equating the figure with Jesus of Nazareth. It leaves its options open. Although it is common among lay Christians to see the cutting off as the crucifixion, and having nothing as meaning Jesus was rejected by most of Israel and abandoned by His disciples, some Christians have different interpretations.
One school of thought holds this as a reference to the murder of Onias III, a High Priest in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (2 Maccabees 4:26). High Priests were anointed, and cutting off could conceivably mean murder, while having nothing may refer to the fact that he was living in hiding in Syria because he opposed the faction of apostate Judeans who eventually took control until their defeat at the hands of the Maccabees. On the other hand, there are those who see this verse in Daniel as a reference to the desolation or destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, either by the Romans or the Seleucids or both. As consecrated space, the Temple was holy, and its vessels were anointed. The cutting off and having nothing could mean that there were no longer worshippers and priests in the Temple, because of its desecration or destruction.
The meaning of words and their historical context matters. Languages, modes of living, politics, and philosophies change over time. We can be mistaken about what the authors of Scripture meant when they applied metaphors and abstract concepts to the crucifixion. In particular, the meaning of sacrifice, is not as straightforward as one might initially suppose.