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Gospels, Classics, and the Erasure of the Community: A Critical Review Testing the Hypothesis of Robyn Faith Walsh’s The Origins of Early Christian Literature, Part B


Part B: The Gospels and the Prayer of Socrates Thanking Asclepius

1. The Soldier Cipher
2. Gethsemane
3. Moral Influence and the Greeks
4. Walsh, the Satyrica, and the Gospels as Dystopian Satire
5. The Hypothetical Q Source: A Pathway to History or Generic Sayings and Allusions?

ABSTRACT: This is Part B of a three-part literary application and defense of Robyn Faith Walsh’s recent (2021) hypothesis that the Gospels are not, as is usually thought, the product of literate spokespersons conveying the oral tradition of their community, but rather are birthed out of networks of elite Greco-Roman-Jewish writers in dialogue with one another, not downtrodden illiterate peasants. For example, what if the empty tomb narrative did not originate in the oral tradition of a Christian community, but in empty tomb apotheosis narratives that the author had read from ancient novels like that of Chariton? As a literary test of a hypothesis, I ask what predictions we can make of the kinds of concepts that we should find in the New Testament on Walsh’s literary elite education model, compared to what we should find if the oral tradition model is correct. I show that Walsh’s approach is certainly plausible and makes good sense of the evidence, such as pervasive intertextual haggadic midrash (Jewish) and mimesis (Greek) going on in writing the Gospels, which seems less likely on the “oral tradition of the community” hypothesis. In other words, what sorts of predictions about the text can we make to test Walsh’s hypothesis? If the writers are the product of elite Greco-Roman education (paideia), then certainly the hallmarks of such an education should be visible in the writing. New Testament Jewish intertextuality can be explained away by claiming an oral culture where everyone just has the scriptures memorized (though why a peasant farmer would have the time or inclination to do such a thing is unclear), but what if there was an equal amount of Greco-Roman intertextuality in the New Testament (as Dennis MacDonald has long argued)? And how might this kind of elite Greco-Roman Jewish-educated writer make us rethink core issues, like Jewish polysemy techniques/puzzles in reading the New Testament? My aim is not to extensively recapitulate or assess Walsh’s presentation, but to see if the New Testament writers were experts in Greco-Roman/Jewish literary practices and were sophistically engaging in the content from those traditions beyond what one might expect from a mere literate member of a community enshrining oral traditions about Jesus. Walsh’s critique of the community oral tradition model is important because that model is what bridges the gap from the opaque period of Jesus’ life and death in the 30s through Paul (who is silent on the details of Jesus’ life) to the destruction of the Temple in the 70s, when Mark’s gospel appears. A few bare details aside, without this chain of sources, reconstruction of the events of Jesus’ life is essentially impossible.

1. The Soldier Cipher

In the previous installment (Part A: “Jesus in the Light of Greco-Roman Philosophy and Highly Sophisticated Engagement with the Old Testament“) we introduced and explored Robyn Faith Walsh’s hypothesis of literary rather than oral tradition origins for the gospel narratives. In this installment we’ll show how the narrative of the arrest and death of Jesus serves a theological agenda, not a historical one, and review the problematic nature of the hypothetical lost Q source. Dennis MacDonald, Robyn Faith Walsh, and Richard C. Miller show us that trying to make the New Testament intelligible through the categories of modern history of religion neglects how the ancient writers who wrote it would have understood it, namely through the lenses of paideia and haggadic midrash/mimesis and nonliteral ancient historiography generally.

As a rule of thumb, we read the Gospels critically by reading the same stories, like the soldier at the cross, independently from other gospels, and in the context of the gospel they are in. The assumption is that Mark has his own project, which is different from that of Matthew, Luke, and John, and so, for instance, we need to understand the story element in Mark’s context. When we detect differences between the same story in different accounts, this is a clue to note authorial difference in the contrast. We normally say then that Mark has a penal substitution cross theology, while Luke has moral influence repentance cross theology.

It’s not quite that straightforward because a very different story could actually be clarifying a source in the way that two very different and even seemingly contrary analogies can clarify the same concept, or how Matthew clarifies Mark. So we have to be careful. In any case, this is the opposite of the conservative apologetic approach that throws all of the gospels into one pot to make a single scripture stew. An important question to be addressed is whether the traditional view of Mark’s penal substitution cross, and God who turns away from sin-saturated Jesus, simply contradicts Luke’s moral influence cross. Or is Luke actually making conspicuous something that he sees hidden in Mark? Jesus certainly seems to deny the retributive justice of penal substitution in Matthew: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (5:38-39).

Richard Beck comments:

It is noteworthy that the first sign of the Fall was hiding from God. Shame was the first symptom of our transgression. Psalm 32 begins with this hiding, the fear of exposure: When I kept silent, my bones became brittle from my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was drained as in the summer’s heat. The secret keeps taking its toll. Eventually, confession is made: I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. The confession brings relief and joy. The catharsis of coming clean before God: How joyful is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How joyful is a person whom the Lord does not charge with iniquity and in whose spirit is no deceit! I think it’s noteworthy how, in the Old Testament, there isn’t a whole lot of metaphysical mechanics involved in God’s forgiveness. No great theory of atonement is floated about how God needs to jump through some hoops to remit our sin. All that seems necessary is honesty and confession. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51.17). Admitting our guilt. I think of David’s response to Nathan’s confrontation: “You are the man!” Once David owns his sin his relationship with God is restored. Yes, there are consequences, but honesty mends the relationship. Perhaps it is that simple. The sin is easily dealt with, but it’s the hiding, lying, avoidance, denial, silence and obfuscation that is killing us. Maybe all God wants from us is the truth. (Beck, 2024)

Testing Walsh’s hypothesis, one way that we see the Gospels birthing in a network of literary exchange, rather than the oral tradition of communities, is when they disagree in such a way that they are actually complimentary in showing different aspects of the same thing. For example, with the figure of the soldier at the cross, we get different angles on the moral influence of Jesus’ death, not vicarious penal substitutionary atonement.[1] We sometimes neglect the fact that the ancients prized the literary puzzle of the “how” just as much as they prized the “what” of the text. In this way, the true pleasure of Plato’s Socratic dialogues is not in the results that they produce (they end in aporia), but in the pleasure of piecing together the thought-path and seeing how “thinking as” (e.g., elenchus) works, even though the puzzle comes together as puzzlement (aporia, literally a blocked path producing thaumazein or wonder): e.g., in Plato’s Meno (84a-c). Plato (Theatetus 155d) and Aristotle (Metaphysics 982b) said that wonder/awe was the birthplace of philosophy:[2]

  • Soldier in Mark, in awe of Jesus’ obedience/faithfulness/trust in God despite terror (“Truly this is God’s Son”)
  • Soldier in Matthew: in awe at the anger and power of God at the wrongful death of his specially beloved (“Truly this is God’s Son”)
  • Soldier in Luke: in awe of Jesus’ forgiveness and confirmation of the fulfillment of God’s moral influence plan (“Truly this is an innocent man”)[3]
  • Soldier in John: reader in awe that Jesus really died, so it wasn’t a “swoon” event (the piercing to confirm death would have done so by rupturing the pericardial sac, causing blood and water to flow out)

For example, Bart Ehrman comments:

For it is a striking feature of Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ death—this may sound strange at first—that he never, anywhere else, indicates that the death itself is what brings salvation from sin. Nowhere in Luke’s entire two volume work (Luke and Acts), is Jesus’ death said to be “for you.” And in fact, on the two occasions in which Luke’s source Mark indicates that it was by Jesus’ death that salvation came (Mark 10:45; 15:39), Luke changed the wording of the text (or eliminated it). Luke, in other words, has a different understanding of the way Jesus death leads to salvation from Mark (and from Paul, and other early Christian writers). It is easy to see Luke’s own distinctive view by considering what he has to say in the book of Acts, where the apostles give a number of speeches in order to convert others to the faith. What is striking is that in none of these instances (look, e.g., in chapters 3, 4, 13), do the apostles indicate that Jesus’ death brings atonement for sins. It is not that Jesus’ death is unimportant. It’s extremely important for Luke. But not as an atonement. Instead, Jesus’ death is what makes people realize their guilt before God (since he died even though he was innocent). Once people recognize their guilt, they turn to God in repentance, and then he forgives their sins. Jesus’ death for Luke, in other words, drives people to repentance, and it is this repentance that brings salvation. (Ehrman, 2014).

Contrary to penal substitution, a moral influence cross is a gift of sight to all people, and so in this way Luke says: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6).[4] But notice the ambiguity. When Paul quotes the creed in 1 Corinthians that Jesus “died for our sins,” it’s murky. I could just as well say that Christ died so that my sin debt is paid for (compare the usual reading of Mark 10:45; 15:39). But, conversely, I could say that Christ died so that my sins would become conspicuous and I could realize them and repent—Psalm 19:12 indicates our sins that are hidden to us: “But who can detect one’s own errors? Clear me from hidden faults.” Similarly, Jeremiah says: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Adam and Eve sinned not because they were vicious, but because they didn’t see their actions as wrong. Most wrongdoing is of this sort, as transgressors don’t see themselves as vile.

Let’s develop this line of inquiry in the next section.

2. Gethsemane

Walsh says that the idea of people being dumbfounded or in wonder at Jesus (traditionally called the messianic secret theology) is most like Odysseus returning home and being unrecognized, and the wonder caused by Camilla in Virgil’s Aeneid.[5] These two are subversive characters (subverting traditional virtues and ideologies) causing wonder with a literary trope: Camilla is a warrior who shouldn’t be one, and Jesus is a messiah who dies. Jesus isn’t unrecognized because of a messianic secret, but because it is the soldier at the cross who first truly recognizes him (truly this is God’s son/an innocent man). The example of the cross and the soldier is telling, for whatever differences we find between the Gospels, beyond erasing penal substitution the soldier pericope seems to show different aspects of the same moral influence point, resolving Paul’s lament: “What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13). Ultimately, Christianity isn’t about striving to be the law incarnate: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21). It is about the awakening of the law written on our hearts by seeing the horror that we did to Jesus. There is nothing substitutionary about the cross, or God unleashing His wrath on Jesus. Man realizes that he is responsible for the horror of the cross done to God’s specially beloved (agapetos).

As in Hebrews, where his desperate prayers are heard, in Mark’s narrative Jesus may have gone to the cross believing that his Gethsemane prayer would be answered, and that God would intervene in history and miraculously send Elijah to rescue him (Mark 15:34-36—analogous to when it seems that all hope will be gone for Jerusalem and the people of Israel, then the LORD intervenes in Zechariah 14), but then comes to realize that Elijah would not come and that God has abandoned Jesus to his terrible fate. Jesus may have thought that the desperate prayer in Gethsemane may have originally been envisioned as being granted (e.g., Hebrews 5:7): in being condemned by the Romans, but being rescued by God, this would show the Jewish son of God, Jesus, to be superior to the Roman son of God, Caesar.

So, following the Gethsemane prayer, Jesus might have thought that he would accomplish the act of lifting the fog from people’s eyes (cf. John 9:21) as a paradigmatically holy man unjustly suffering terribly, but then be miraculously saved from the cross by Elijah (Mark 15:35-36)—thereby showing that Jesus was uniquely favored by God, and thus that the rulers were guilty of condemning a paradigmatically holy man without just cause. Analogously, it was Isaac’s willingness to die that was key, not his actual death, and the angel saved Isaac at the last moment. An often missed literary plot point is that it seems problematic to maintain that penal substitution was the central meaning of the cross if Jesus believed that God’s plan could be realized without him having to die (take this cup from me—the world realizing what they had done with Jesus’ suffering didn’t mean that Jesus had to go to the extreme of actually dying).[6] God disagreed, but Jesus thought this. This call by Jesus for Elijah is Mark recapitulating Psalm 20:6, which says that God will save or help his anointed one. This also clearly seems to be an allusion to divine protection against death from Psalm 16. Elijah was prophesied to show up and make things right at the end of the age, so this fits with Jesus’ apocalyptic outlook. Elijah didn’t show up and help, of course, because like Paul, Jesus was wrong about the apocalypse.

Regarding the cross, Psalm 22 is about a person who is crying out to God to save him from the taunts and torments of his enemies, and (in the last ten verses) thanking God for rescuing him. The plain meaning of the allusion by Mark is that Jesus on the cross is terrified and crying for help, but ultimately trusts whatever plan God has for him. The penal substitution interpretation makes no sense here—why would a penal substitution Jesus think that he didn’t need to die?—and so the crowd understands that Jesus is calling to God to miraculously intervene and send Elijah to rescue him. Why Elijah? Because it’s prophesied that Elijah will come in the last days and right wrongs (Malachi 4:5-6). Jesus’ words indicate that he finally came to realize that Elijah isn’t coming, but he still trusts God. Mark seems to be winking at the educated reader with an allusion to the Christological point that Jesus isn’t a great angel (polysemy, meaning either angel or just messenger), but instead that Paul and Jesus were fallible human beings who mispredicted the apocalypse[7], that Jesus could do no great works in his hometown because of unbelief, and so on.

Perhaps God had lied to Jesus in Gethsemane by promising that Elijah would come to rescue Jesus and comfort him (like God lies in 1 Kings 22:21-22, or Jesus lies in John 7:8-10), leading Jesus to think that he would live, yet instead he died (like Elisha’s lie to the king in 2 Kings 8:8-10). One of the main roles of God in the Bible is that of a comforter (e.g., 2 Corinthians 1:3-4; Matthew 5:4; Isaiah 51:12).

In this way, Adolph von Harnack seems to be on the right track in saying that another dimension of the cry of dereliction from the cross, beyond abandonment, is that Jesus was accusing God of mocking him by lying to him. Ehrman explains:

One of the most intriguing variations in Mark’s Gospel comes in the Passion narrative, in the final words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel. Jesus is being crucified, and he says nothing on the cross until he cries out his final words, which Mark records in Aramaic: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” Mark then translates the words into Greek: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus then utters a loud cry and dies. What is striking is that in one early Greek manuscript BREAK (the fifth-century codex Bezae—an erratic manuscript that nonetheless on very rare occasions preserves an original reading when all other Greek manuscripts say something else) and several Latin manuscripts, that often agree with it, Jesus’ cry is translated into Greek as: “My God, my God, why have you mocked me?” Whoa. Mocked me? Could this be what Mark’s Gospel actually said? One great scholar, Adolph von Harnack (arguably the greatest scholar of Christian antiquity of the 20th century), argued that this alternative reading was in fact original, that scribes changed it from “mocked me” to “forsaken me” because they did not approve of the theology involved with the idea of God mocking his son. Moreover, since this “cry of dereliction” (as it is called) is a quotation of Scripture (Psalm 22:1), and the Hebrew of Ps. 22:1 (as well as the Greek) is clearly “forsaken” instead of “mocked,” then it is likely that scribes would have changed the original “mocked” in order to improve its theology and into line with how the verse is found in the Old Testament itself (and into line with how Matthew records the cry). In addition, as Harnack pointed out, the word “mocked” fits the literary context of Mark very well. In this scene, in Mark’s Gospel, everyone mocks Jesus: the people passing by his crucifixion, the Jewish leaders, and even both criminals being crucified with him (15:29-32). Now even God himself mocks him. (Ehrman, 2022)

Scholars have long thought that the “forsaken” and “mocked” reading were both circulating in the second century. In terms of literary element, in Mark Jesus is mocked by the Sanhedrin and the Roman soldiers. The mockeries continue when he is on the cross. Both robbers also mock him. Conversely, supporting “abandoned,” Jesus was betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, forsaken by the disciples, and rejected by the crowd and leaders. But interestingly, as Ehrman points out, the word that Mark uses for the robbers mocking Jesus is oneidizo, the same word used to describe God in the cry of dereliction. Scribes thus may have changed mocked to abandoned because they found it offensive to describe God as mocking, which would also appeal to the scribes’ desire to harmonize Jesus’ cry in Mark with that of Matthew. Conversely, Matthew was one of Mark’s first copyists, though he sometimes did change Mark, and so the fact that “forsaken” is in Matthew may put it back in Mark. But, to return to a previous point, Matthew may have been offended by the presence of “mocked” in Mark, and so changed it. Conversely, scribes may have changed Mark to put the cry in harmony with the description of the robbers: oneidizo. Or perhaps scribes changed Mark to reflect what Christians in their day were encountering from Jews and pagans: mockery.

There are clearly arguments on both sides. For most critics a more powerful argument is derived from the fact that the Aramaic word that Mark quotes, sabachthani, means “forsaken.” Moreover, the LXX that Mark was working from here has “forsaken.” Furthermore, in the social and theological context of the second and third century, proto-orthodox scribes were sometimes changing the text to align with their view that Christ was fully divine and fully human, though just one entity. Mark was particularly susceptible to gnostic (e.g., Valentinians) readings that took the divine Christ element to have entered Jesus at baptism and later left him at the cross, abandoning/forsaking him. The Gospel of Peter also has a passage that was interpreted gnostically as Jesus’ power leaving him. The Gospel of Philip says that “it was there he was divided.” So, the argument is that the proto-orthodox changed the text to say “mocked” to argue against the gnostic interpretation.

Regardless of how you vote on the issue of textual criticism here, the more important issue from the point of view of literary criticism is the fact that “mocked” fits nicely in the context, and if proto-orthodox scribes changed “forsaken” to “reviled/mocked,” what did they think it meant that Jesus accused God of “mocking” him—since for the changers, “mocked” made literary sense even if it was not textually original. Mocking him how, and for what reason? As I said, for this I think that we need to go back to the Gethsemane prayer and see it illumined by Hebrews 5:7. Abandoned and mocked may be two sides of the same interpretive key to what is going on in Mark. We sometimes point to the sophistication of the Gospels in form with such things as chiastic structures, but further evidence of this is the sophisticated use of double and triple senses with concepts.

Below (and in the third article) we will explore multiple meanings and the use of satire in the New Testament; for example, double meaning with Paul, for if we assume the traditional reading of Paul (such as Luther’s), some of Paul’s citation of the tradition (such as Habakkuk) becomes absurd. Moreover, Matthew Pawlak’s Sarcasm in Paul’s Letters helps us to see such humor and irony in the Gospels. We see this with parables missing crucifixion/resurrection theology, but also with Jesus (in Mark) talking in parables that intentionally mislead people, and the disciples getting violent at Jesus’ arrest. Matthew seems to poke fun at his own process of scripture fulfillment by having Jesus fulfill scripture by riding into Jerusalem on two animals!

As Ryan Flemming notes, in the Histories, Book IV, §81, the Roman historian Tacitus (56-120 CE) wrote of miracles that Vespasian performed in the temple of Serapis in Alexandria, Egypt, as did Suetonius (69-122 CE) in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars. In one case Vespasian healed a blind man by anointing his eyes with his spit, and in another he healed a paralyzed man by touching his withered hand or leg. Josephus thought that Vespasian was the Messiah, and in this way the Gospel writers are satirizing Vespasian by presenting Jesus as able to do Vespasian’s miracles and so much more. It is tempting practice to compare these miracles with nearly identical acts attributed to Jesus in the canonical Gospels and to debate which came first, the Jesus stories or Vespasian stories:

  • Curing blindness with spit: Mark 8:23-25, John 9:6-7
  • Curing blindness: Matthew 9:29-30, 20:34, Mark 10:51-52, Luke 18:41-43
  • Restoring withered hand: Matthew 12:9-13, Mark 3:1-5, Luke 6:6-10
  • Paralytic man to walk: Matthew 9:2-7, Mark 2:3-12, Luke 5:18-25

3. Moral Influence and the Greeks

So what we find is not vicarious penal substitution, but rather the fact that the soldier in Luke has his eyes opened (cf. Genesis 3:7) by Jesus’ forgiveness (the interpolated “forgive them father,” which still illumines the context correctly). Similarly, in being prayed over by Ananias, Paul had something like the scales fall from his eyes[8] (perhaps as a result of a seed being planted by the forgiveness of dying Stephen, and of the cognitive dissonance at having relatives like Junia high up in the Jesus movement before he converted). Thereafter Paul finally saw clearly for the first time in his life (Acts 9:17-19).[9] Psalm 19:12 indicates that our sins that are hidden to us: “But who can detect one’s own errors? Clear me from hidden faults.”[10] God’s beloved (agapetos) Jesus’ horrific death at our hands does this, not as penal substitution, but rather as moral influence. Paul came face to face with the reality of just how evil he had become, and this broke his spirit, changing the trajectory of his life forever. Once this mind of Christ in us has been awakened, it is to be perfected, “for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Coming face to face with your sin inspires transformation (Psalm 32:5; 2 Corinthians 7:8-10). Regarding this central biblical theme of eyes being opened, we read:

In Genesis, our first parents, they grabbed and they grasped some really bad food and they ate it and then their eyes were opened, they experienced lethal heartburn. For the two disciples (Emmaus), they were invited to the heavenly table to eat of the good food, the heavenly food and at the breaking of the bread they recognized Jesus the new Adam. Their eyes were opened and they exclaimed in joy, ‘Weren’t our hearts burning!’ and then they turned immediately and despite the dangers of the night, they hurried back to Jerusalem. So what is our take away from this comparison between Genesis and our Gospel, the Emmaus story? Well, we’re all sinners and unless we open our eyes to our own sinfulness, our own pride, our own sense that we are in charge of our lives, only then will we see that God is near us, he walks with us and he wants us to turn to Him. This pandemic has been a reminder of the fragility and the shortness of life yet many in our world, in our nation, in our parish and in our families are in fear. So many of us do not see that the Lord is walking alongside us, so I think initially we must open our eyes to see that we are sinners. In our pride we make ourselves out to be God, but once we can recognize our sinfulness just like the two disciples of Emmaus we can then open our eyes the second time and realize that all the time Jesus has been walking with us. (Stanley, 2020)

The notion of a moral influence death was first popularized by Plato’s account of the death of Socrates in the Phaedo: asking Crito to sacrifice a rooster to healing Asclepius for the pharmakon (poison/cure) in order to cure him of the prison (sema) of his body (soma), and to provide the transformative effect on society produced from killed a good, just man for silly reasons.[11] It is through this lens that we can also understand the ideal of the impaled just man in Plato’s Republic.[12] And it was probably known at the time that Socrates had this ulterior motive for his noble death in his circle of peers. Xenophon said that Socrates wanted to die to avoid the senility of old age. More to the point, Aristophanes’ “Clouds” makes fun of Socrates for being silly, but it’s interesting that Plato said that this “parody” or caricature of Socrates was partially responsible for his death.[13]

Walsh identifies the model of Socrates, as he is depicted in the Phaedo, as evidence against the idea that the Gospels were conveyed by literate spokespeople for the oral tradition of the community. Instead, they seem to be the product of Greco-Roman literary elites and their intellectual networks:

Approaching the gospels in this way transforms them from lives documenting the theologies of each “church” or “community” into an individual author’s account of the last days of a notable philosopher, such as the Phaedo, a collection of chreia in the style of Demonax, a depiction of the figure of Jesus as a teacher of ethics, or a Jesus as an epic hero establishing divine lineage and authority in style of the Aeneid, and so on. Attention to the strategic literary decisions of these authors opens up entirely new avenues of investigation that focus on the sort of networks that fostered this kind of literature, not the type of mirror reading onto communities characteristic of Romantic methodologies. (2023, p. 36).

It is interesting that the Gospel of Mark kicks off the tradition of putting special attention on the soldier at the cross because for all of Paul’s emphasis on the cross, Paul says “without the resurrection you are still in your sins and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:18). For Paul it is Christ in you—Christ indwelling in you—that makes salvation from the sinfulness of the fleshly possible (Romans 13:11-14; John 16:7), Christ being the resistor of the Devil par excellence. While apparently satirizing Paul on this key, fundamental point where Paul renders the cross of Christ null and void, the Gospels impressively show that the transfiguration of the soldier at the cross happens prior to any resurrection appearances (there are none in Mark’s authentic ending), in fact before the resurrection itself. Mark seems to be in dialogue with Paul’s letters on this point, and in fact Paul seems to be a significant source for Mark.

The typology of a crucifixion transfiguring onlookers doesn’t seem to originate in oral memory, but rather in other contemporaneous sources of the general theme. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives relates the old story of political reformer Cleomenes III, who was stabbed in his side while his body was crucified around 220 BCE. As he hung on the cross, a snake coiled around his head and prevented the birds from mutilating him. A group of women were watching this. The king of Alexandria was suddenly seized with fear when he saw this: maybe this was a righteous man, beloved by the gods. So the king gave the women the rights to perform purification. According to Plutarch, the Alexandrians then started to worship Cleomenes III and would come to the cross and address Cleomenes as a hero and son of the gods (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, “The Life of Cleomenes,” §39).

This is exactly the moral influence reading that I make of the soldier at the cross in Mark, Matthew (“Truly this was the son of God”), and Luke (“Truly this was an innocent man”). I follow the general moral influence interpretation of the cross instead of that of penal substitution, with moral influence being most conspicuous in Luke. We saw this in the previous article. It seems that we have an original substitutionary atonement aspect—as a superexcessive Yom Kippur sacrifice aspect—that must be pushed through to moral influence where we contrast the humane death of the pure goat with the perplexing vicious death of the scapegoat (Jewish sacrifice normally being humane). Here the scapegoat’s excessive suffering seems to be an occasion for people to reflect on the consequences of their sins, both intended and unintended, and to repent with a clearer understanding of their wrongdoings. This kind of rich double and triple meaning to the text makes sense of texts birthed in the literary networks of elite writers, but not simply as a literate mouthpiece for the oral tradition of a community.

Like Cleomenes III, Mark has the miraculous sign and its subtext, so we read: “The sky went dark at noon for 3 hours… And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion who stood facing him saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!'” (Mark 15:38-40). Jesus’ death was superior to that of Socrates because Jesus stayed faithful to God’s plan even though he was terrified, whereas Socrates wanted to die to effect societal change, but also wanted to die to avoid the mental and physical deterioration that comes with age. In fact, the soldier at the cross trope in Mark is crucial, because it is seems to be foreshadowing the success of Paul’s message to the Gentiles. Ehrman explains:

No one throughout this Gospel has fully understood that Jesus is the Son of God who has to suffer. Until now. And strikingly, it is not one of Jesus’ family or followers who understands. It is the Roman centurion who has presided over his crucifixion. This pagan soldier, seeing Jesus die, proclaims, “Surely this man was God’s Son” (15:39). This brings the recognition of Jesus’ true identity around full circle. It was proclaimed at his baptism at the beginning of the Gospel (from heaven); it is now proclaimed at his crucifixion at the end (on earth). Moreover, it is significant who makes the proclamation: a pagan soldier, one who had not been Jesus’ follower. This in itself may intimate what will happen to the proclamation of Jesus as the suffering Son of God down to the time when Mark pens his account: the proclamation in fact will not find fertile soil among Jews, either those who had known Jesus or those who had not. It will be embraced principally by those outside of Judaism, by Gentiles as represented by this Roman centurion. Jesus is the Son of God, rejected by his own people, but acknowledged by the Gentiles. (Ehrman, 2014)

The historical Jesus may have been killed for claiming that he was a rival king, but the Pilate of Mark obtains no such confession and finds nothing wrong with him: “For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over…. They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?'” (Mark 27:18,22-23).[14] Here again we see the dystopian mess that Jesus is caught up in: Pilate denies him justice because it would be a nuisance to find him innocent.

4. Walsh, the Satyrica, and the Gospels as Dystopian Satire

Another theme suggesting a literary relationship with the soldier in the Gospels is that of the soldier and the empty tomb[15] in the Satyrica, which is part of one of Walsh’s key arguments. Roger Viklund explains:

The story was about a recently widowed woman who was celebrated for her great virtue. Accompanied by a servant, she sequestered herself in her husband’s tomb and refused to take nourishment or leave the corpse’s side. The mourning widow was noticed by a nearby soldier, who was guarding the corpses of several crucified thieves. The soldier seduced the grieving widow. While the soldier was dallying with the widow, one of the crucified corpses was stolen and given proper burial. The soldier decided to kill himself rather than suffer punishment for his dereliction of duty. The widow, not wanting to lose her new found lover, offered to substitute her husband’s corpse for the stolen body. The next day, the townspeople wondered how the dead husband managed to climb up on the cross in place of the dead thief. (Viklund, 2016)

Scholars as divergent as Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan note that the crucifixion/empty tomb story won’t stand historically as written, since the idea of Jesus being taken down from the cross on the afternoon of his crucifixion flies in the face of a full survey of crucifixion accounts from antiquity, where the body is always left hanging to be eaten by scavengers in order to make a heads-on-pikes type statement. The empty tomb in Mark seems to be a wink at the educated reader; while the Jewish peasantry wouldn’t understand its meaning, an elite educated reader would have understood apotheosis. The author of the Satyrica seems to be addressing the “gospel type” empty tomb stories satirically[16], which is suggestive of a literary network that the Gospels were caught up in, and at a more esoteric level the Gospels are dystopian satire.

This is satire, not history. So, for instance, Jesus is (per Isaiah 53:3) denied justice by Pilate, (perhaps) lied to by God, abandoned (at arrest), betrayed (by Judas), failed (his disciples get violent at arrest), and denied (by Peter) by his followers. In addition, Jesus’ family and contemporaries regard him as delusional, possessed by demons, or insane, he is conspired against and mocked by the Jewish Supreme Council, and he is turned against by the crowd—and as a capstone, given a dishonorable burial in Mark (either no burial as an enemy of the state by the Romans [Ehrman], or a criminal burial according to Jewish custom [McGrath]). (James McGrath, for example, notes that we don’t have records of Jews complaining that the Romans weren’t letting them bury their executed dead.) And there is the gross illegality of Jesus’ trial in that it transgressed a whole host of Jewish customs and laws, not the least of which was the Jewish Supreme council meeting on Passover eve![17]

We can certainly suppose that this is satire, not historical, and this notion fits in generally with Mark’s playful hermeneutic clue that the narrative is functioning both at a superficial surface level for the masses and a higher esoteric level for the highly educated reader: “And he said to them, To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything comes in parables, in order that ‘they may indeed look but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven'” (Mark 4:11-12). This fits in with the notion of the hidden double meaning of religious texts generally, and so we see (as I will show in the next article) such diverse sources as Paul associating himself with the double meaning master in the Jewish tradition Gamaliel, and Plutarch instructing the priestess of Isis in the figurative meaning of her religious tradition.

Some scholars try to rescue the historicity of the account of Jesus’s trial in a manner that seems highly dubious. For instance, from John Hamilton we read:

However, the Synoptic chronology is not impossible, for as [Josef] Blinzler says, the prohibition of legal proceedings on feast days was less strictly enforced than that of holding courts on the Sabbath, ‘therefore it is quite thinkable that it did not seem to the Sanhedrists an infringement of an important rule to start a legal trial even on the night of the Pesach’. It is the argument of this article that all the Gospels witness to such a trial which, while viable in its date, contravened accepted practice as subsequently enshrined in the Mishnah at many points, as Blinzler shows. For example, the proceedings took place in the house of Caiaphas, not in the Temple, and though Jesus had not actually pronounced the Name of God, he was condemned as a blasphemer. He was not offered an advocate; the witnesses were not warned before being examined; nor were they called to account for false witness. The members of the Sanhedrin, although witnesses of the alleged blasphemy, took part in the passing of the sentence, though it was not legal for them to do so. As Blinzler says, one is not able ‘to spare the Sanhedrin the reproach of very serious infringement of the law’. The question is, why did they do this?‘ It will not do to suggest that the occasion was a sham—the proceedings were undoubtedly carried through before a competent bench of judges’. Nor can their contraventions of the Mishnaic code be simply dismissed by saying that it was not yet in force. It is true that it was not codified until about 200 AD, and reflects conditions which obtained then, but it certainly enshrines earlier practice to a considerable extent. For example, Segal says that in describing Temple ritual, it may be employed with confidence. May not the same apply to legal practice?… Before the Feast of the Passover Caiaphas is reported to have said in council: ‘It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish’ (Jn. 11:50). Expediency was the factor which determined his conduct. When the opportunity unexpectedly presented itself to secure Jesus’ death, he and the priests avidly took it. Spurred on by their hatred of him; persuaded that as he was a false teacher, his execution on a feast day would be appropriate; and pressurized by shortage of time, they held his trial on the paschal night. In this trial they contravened normal legal practice at many points. The fact that they could do this in the legal sphere makes it likely that they could, because of the exceptional circumstances, also contravene ritual practice. For the exigencies of the case demanded that they work through the night. Early next morning therefore, they still had not eaten their paschal meal [emphasis mine]. (Hamilton, 1992, pp. 335-336)

We can certainly explain away the apparent impropriety with “maybe if we look at it this way” and “maybe that,” if we assume that the narrative is historical. But it seems just as likely that the writers were emphasizing and augmenting the wrongs being done to Jesus, who they felt was wrongly executed to make a point about the world turning on God’s specially beloved agapetos. Is the most parsimonious explanation really that in the case of a multitude of apparent illegalities, there are a multitude of loopholes that happened historically? Or are the gospel writers making the point that the Jewish leaders were manipulating God’s words while they knew that they were going against His will in getting Jesus killed (e.g., John 18:31), and so they tricked the Romans into executing Jesus? Is the true meaning of blasphemy cursing God, or rather is it knowingly twisting God’s words to serve one’s own agenda? Hamilton seems to be hanging a lot of his argument on John 11:50 when, as Hugo Méndez argues, John presents himself as a lens through which to view the synoptics even if the coloring changes the original meaning and intent of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The simpler reason seems to be that John saw something that he wanted to fix in the traditional narrative and so altered it. Once again, just as the extensive use of Jewish (e.g., Jesus as the New and greater Moses) and Greco-Roman (Jesus as the new and greater Dionysus) typology was noted in the first article, so too we have with Jesus’ “trial” a fiction made out of a sophisticated understanding and manipulation of Jewish law and tradition to create satire that screams at an elite educated writer, not the oral traditions of an illiterate community.

Moreover, Hamilton says:

Certainly therefore, an execution would have been contrary to the sabbatical nature of the first paschal day. However, Deut. 17: 12-13 prescribes the death penalty for anyone who opposes the decisions of the priests, to be carried out so that ‘all the people shall hear and fear’, and the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 11:4) gives special instructions for the execution of a rebellious teacher: ‘He was kept in guard until one of the three feasts, and he was put to death on one of the three feasts’. This shows that in certain circumstances executions were permitted on feast days. Moreover, [Paul] Billerbeck says that where an example is required ‘to protect the Torah from wilfully severe transgressions, an execution may, as an exception, supersede a feast day’. (Hamilton, 1992, p. 335)

Again, this seems to make perfect literary sense. Just as Mark’s narrative of the crucifixion is haggadic midrash recapitulating Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, perhaps Deuteronomy 17:12-13 is the literary origin of the story. Just as we have a very sophisticated use of the Hebrew scriptures using haggadic midrash, so too we see a sophisticated use of the Jewish tradition with the crafting of the satirical trial of Jesus by the wiley Jewish leaders. In this way, there is no question in critical academic circles that the New Testament writers were rewriting Greek sources, often without saying that they were doing it, to invent a biography for Jesus (most obviously from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures). Mark, for instance, creates the crucifixion narrative out of Psalms and Isaiah, just as Matthew’s Jesus repeats Moses as a new and greater Moses. This lends weight to Dennis MacDonald’s thesis that they are also doing this with Greek poetry like Homer, and Greek plays like Euripides’ Bacchae.

Regarding the illegality of the trial with the Sanhedrin in Mark, Price comments:

Mark borrowed from Daniel 6:4 LXX the scene of the crossfire of false accusations (Helms, p. 118): “The governors and satraps sought (ezetoun) to find (eurein) occasion against Daniel, but they found against him no accusation.” Of this Mark (14:55) has made the following: “The chief priests and the whole council sought (ezetoun) testimony against Jesus in order to kill him, but they found none (ouk euriskon).” Mark 14:65, where Jesus suffers blows and mockery as a false prophet, comes from 1 Kings 22:24, “Then Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah came near and struck Micaiah on the cheek, and said, ‘How did the spirit of the LORD go from me to speak to you?’ And Micaiah said, ‘Behold, you shall see on that day when you go into an inner chamber to hide yourself'” (Miller, p. 350). Mark has used Micaiah’s retort, “Behold, you shall see…” as the model for Jesus’ retort that his accusers/attackers will one day behold Jesus enthroned as the Son of Man from Daniel 7:13-14. It is interesting to speculate whether the doctrine of the second coming of Christ did not spring full-blown from Mark’s reversal of order between the Son of Man’s coming with the clouds and sitting on the throne in Daniel 7. Jesus’ silence at both trials before the Sanhedrin and Pilate (14:60-61; 15:4-5) comes from Isaiah 50:7; 53:7. (Price, 2005)

This fits in exactly with the overall midrash of Isaiah 53, particularly Isaiah 53:8: “By a perversion of justice he was taken away.”

Seeing ourselves in those who killed Jesus on the cross is the vehicle through which the Holy Spirit can make conspicuous and convict us of our sin nature, resulting in a repenting metanoia or change of heart/mind, opening our eyes. When we say that the world turned on Jesus, we don’t have in mind a collection of individual sinners, but rather systemic or corporate sin, like misogyny in our culture (institutional sexism) in the recent past and still in some places today. In this way B. Brandon Scott notes the meaning of Paul’s statement that Jesus died for our sins:

“For our sins” indicates why the Anointed died. “Sins” does not indicate my and your personal, individual moral failings. It is OUR sins, not my individual sins or moral failures. For example, in our culture, systemic racism is an example of “our sins,” the sins of the people. In Judaism our sins are the corporate offenses of the people against the covenant. The context is God’s covenant with Israel. …

Martyrdom remains a powerful metaphor. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., he was honored as martyr because it made sense of his senseless assassination. In 1998 a statue of the Martyr, Martin Luther King Jr. was unveiled in Westminster Abbey. King the martyr stands in a line tracing back through the Christian martyrs, Jesus the martyr, and the Maccabean martyrs. They all died for our sins…. We are all implicated in the martyr’s death. (Scott, 2024)

Our transformation is not just active, but also passive (Romans 12:2), as the truth of the cross washed over us. As I said above: Psalm 19:12 indicates our sins that are hidden to us: “But who can detect one’s own errors? Clear me from hidden faults.” Following Jeremiah, Paul says that the law is written on the hearts of Jews and Gentiles, but the cross needs to circumcise the heart to let ourselves be crucified with Christ and resurrected as a new person.[18] This idea of the face of the suffering other (widow, orphan, stranger, and enemy) that elicits an infinite responsibility in me will be familiar to the student of postmodern ethical theory and the work of Jewish philosophers Emmanuel Levinas in Totality and Infinity and Otherwise Than Being Or Beyond Essence, and in his dialogue partner Jacques Derrida’s essay “Violence and Metaphysics.”

Another example of satire is the Jesus Temple tantrum episode. Mark cues us to the parody nature of the account because the Temple area is huge and would have had armed guards on hand to prevent just such a disturbance. Just as Mark points out that the people are taught in parables so that they won’t understand or be saved, while the disciples are given the keys, the absurdity of the Temple tantrum may be pointing to a deeper truth.[19] In any case, what Mark seems to be doing is putting into literary conflict Jesus’ two fundamental phronesis law principles, (i) love of God, which is demonstrated through (ii) love of neighbor (e.g., the love of enemy, which is in both the hypothetical Q source and Paul). For while the assault on the Temple was done in God’s name, it failed the love of neighbor principle to the extent that it violates the love of enemy rule that we find in Paul and Q. So we have the contrast of righteous indignation with the sin of temper tantrums, and the result is that Jesus got put on the Roman hit list.

5. The Hypothetical Q Source: A Pathway to History or Generic Sayings and Allusions?

We have been following Walsh in thinking that we are dealing with written source material more than with oral tradition. One of the lively debates in New Testament scholarship, exemplified by the 2023 “Does the Lost Gospel Q Exist?” debate between James McGrath and Mark Goodacre, concerns how we source the shared material between Matthew and Luke that did not come from Mark. Did Luke copy Matthew, or was there a now lost source dubbed Q that Matthew and Luke used independently? Just as it is difficult to argue that material from Matthew goes back to the historical Jesus since Matthew basically seems to be Judaizing the Gospel of Mark (e.g., portraying Jesus as the new and greater Moses), the Q hypothesis is equally problematic in providing information about Jesus if we don’t posit the oral tradition of communities hypothesis. So, for example, even though Burton Mack identifies the early stratum of Q1 materials as following the ancient Greek school of Cynicism, in “Deconstructing Jesus” (2000) Price notes that this in no way establishes that the Q sayings come from a single Cynic philosopher, let alone from Jesus of Nazareth, since their Cynic generality is the only way that Mack can tell that the Q sayings could be Cynic in the first place.

Similar attempts (e.g., by McGrath) have been made to rescue information about the historical Jesus by reference to Q with John the Baptist.[20] We have in Q the saying by Jesus that John was greater than he was, hardly something that a Christ-centered writer would invent. Similarly, John questions whether Jesus is the one. But this dubious hermeneutic reasoning hardly passes a form criticism litmus test for genuine history. Like Q framing John the Baptist in terms of Elijah (Matthew 11:2-19, Luke 7:18-35), Mark says: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (à la Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John as similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6; 2 Kings 1:8). He next says that John ate locusts and wild honey, the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on). Price notes: “In view of parallels elsewhere between John and Jesus on the one hand and Elijah and Elisha on the other, some (Miller, p. 48) also see in the Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior” (Price, 2005).

What the writers seem to have done is taken a known successful movement leader, such as John the Baptist (who was killed for the threat posed by his popularity, per Josephus) and grafted that on to the Elijah/Elisha narrative, making John the Baptist the new and greater Elijah and Jesus the new and greater Elisha. The writers thus changed the story of the reason behind John’s death to reflect the evil and embarrassment of it, in order to then have this theme augmented greatly with Jesus’ wrongful and humiliating tortuous death.

But what did Elisha say of Elijah? Jesus’ statement about John being greater than him obviously recapitulates Elisha, who has a double portion of Elijah’s power, saying: “Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces” (2 Kings 2:12). As Wil Gafney notes:

Elisha is left in a new role with the larger-than-life legacy of his predecessor looming over him. If he is daunted by it, he shows no sign. This lesson is read as a companion text to the story of Jesus’s transfiguration. Here, Elisha has his own transfiguration. He becomes the senior prophet of his community, empowered by the gifts of the prophet who nurtured his own gifts. (Gafney, 2018)

And as the Pulpit Commentary on II Kings adds:

The condition was fulfilled which Elijah had laid down, and Elisha knew that his request for a “double portion” of his master’s spirit was granted. And he cried, My father! my father! It was usual for servants thus to address their masters (2 Kings 5:13), and younger men would, out of respect, almost always thus address an aged prophet (2 Kings 6:21; 2 Kings 13:14, etc.). But Elisha probably meant something more than to show respect. (Spence-Jones, 1899)

A targum for this verse also reflects loving reverence toward a master. He regarded himself as Elijah’s specially adopted son, and hence had claimed the “double portion” of the firstborn. That his request was granted showed that the relationship was acknowledged. McGrath says: “I consider the evidence sufficient to indicate that John was a real historical figure. The texts that mention him in the New Testament are unlikely to have invented this figure whom their own central figure Jesus esteemed more highly than himself” (McGrath, 2024). But, on the contrary, there need not be anything historical in the Q statement of Jesus that John was greater than he.

Jesus certainly may have known John, but who knows if he did? Q seems to wink at the reader that Jesus didn’t actually know John:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. (Matthew 11:2-6)

John the Baptist’s doubts regarding Jesus while John was in prison, despite things like the miraculous baptism and the like, obviously recapitulates the doubts, uncertainty, and depression of Elijah in the wilderness despite the miracles of God at Mt. Carmel. Just as Jesus is John the Baptist’s successor and superior, in the wilderness God answers Elijah’s doubts by revealing Elisha to Elijah as Elijah’s successor and superior. In this regard, because the supposed Q source is adding to the Elijah typology found in Mark, the Q material here seems not to be a lost Q source at all, but rather an innovation of Matthew developing Mark and Luke then copying Matthew regarding John as Elijah (e.g., see Matthew 11:14; Luke 1:17; Mark 9:11-13). The Gospel of John, while adamant about the historicity of Jesus’ death and resurrection, had a problem with the unhistorical Elijah typology, and so had John 1:19-28 specifically say he was not Elijah.

Moreover, Luke 16:16 makes the bold claim about John the Baptist: “The Law and the Prophets were until John…” Again, this is nonhistorical Elijah typology, Craig Keener noting that:

If we understand Luke 16:16 in all this context we might derive a summary something like: “The law and the Prophets were calling for obedience and foretelling the Kingdom prior to John, but you’ve only been making a show of obedience while in your hearts you’ve been loving money and committing adultery. Since John arrived, the Kingdom has been preached with urgency and people are eagerly responding because he’s preaching the kingdom as imminent while dressed like Elijah and in the power and spirit of Elijah because he IS the Elijah that was foretold in Malachi. (Keener, 2023)

It’s noteworthy the death of John the Baptist in the Gospels does not line up with the account in Josephus, and seems to be a literary pair with Jesus’ crucifixion being more horrific and humiliating than John’s (or Socrates’) death: just like Stephen’s forgiving death in Acts mirrors Jesus’ forgiving death in Luke. The notion of being hung occurs around sixty times in the Bible, but the only time a Roman/Persian sense of a crucifixion is mentioned (stauróō, a word that Paul also uses) with similar language to the New Testament is the death of the arch villain Haman in the LXX translation of Esther, essentially meaning that Jesus is given a more horrific punishment than Haman, a figure who tried to destroy the Jews.[21]

Ehrman notes that crucifixion was a Roman capital punishment for treason, and so the literary sense of the Gospels is that evil Jewish leaders persuaded Rome that Jesus was a traitor even though Jesus had no intention to incite a military rebellion. In the accounts of the Passion of Jesus, the title king of the Jews is used on three occasions. In the first such episode, all four gospels state that the title was used for Jesus when he was interviewed by Pilate and that his crucifixion was based on that charge (as in Matthew 27:11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3, and John 18:33). Jesus was executed for claiming to be king of the Jews, even though Jesus made no such claim and leaned against it. Ehrman notes that Jesus never calls himself king of the Jews in public. The use of the terms king and kingdom, and the role of the Jews in using the term king to accuse Jesus, are central to the discussion between Jesus and Pilate. In Mark 15:2 Jesus responds to Pilate, “you have said so” when asked if Jesus is the King of the Jews and says nothing further. While Jesus does not publicly claim to be the king of the Jews in Q (if there was such a lost source), Jesus privately teaches that the twelve disciples will rule the coming Kingdom, from which the inference could be made that Jesus would rule over them. We have a record of Jesus teaching his disciples privately about the coming kingdom in which they themselves would be seated on twelve thrones ruling the twelve tribes of Israel. Judas, then, betrayed Jesus’ secret message to the Jewish leadership, and so the Sanhedrin crafted a plot. Jesus would have been seen by the Romans as just another apocalyptist proclaiming the end, which was not unusual in the Greco-Roman world, and so would have ignored him since Jesus had not raised, and had no intention of raising, an army to overthrow Rome. Regarding apocalypticism, Christopher Star notes:

They continue down through the history of classical literature, with apocalyptic scenarios being written by several key authors, including Plato, Epicurus, the Stoics, Lucretius, Cicero, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Seneca, Lucan and even the emperor, Marcus Aurelius. While each author develops his own account of what the end of the world might look like, they often do so in dialogue with others. Plato’s theory of periodic world catastrophes builds on Hesiod’s account of the various catastrophes that have been visited by the gods upon humans in the past and his prediction of the destruction that awaits the current age of iron. Centuries later, in his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius even-handedly explores the possibility that the world will end in fire, as the Stoics argued, or will break apart and scatter into its constituent atoms, as the Epicureans posited. (Star, 2021)

But the Jewish leadership could turn Jesus’ thoughts against him—they could inform the Romans that Jesus was a political threat, and Jesus could not completely deny his kingship since, in a sense, he thought that he would be king, though not in the way that the Romans thought. Why did Jesus not simply declare that he wasn’t king of the Jews, from a literary (not historical) point of view? Because he was making a point about Pilate. Pilate executed Jesus without evidence or a confession where Jesus enacts a Socratic elenchus/aporia against the charges. That completes the dystopian theme: while the world turned against him, even level-headed Pilate denied him justice. In light of the previous article in this trilogy, the infamously cruel Pilate acting in such a satirized benevolent and innocent way shows Jesus to indeed be a king, Plato’s philosopher king, in contrast to a satirized Pilate who is fair to the point that he acts unjustly. Clearly, the historical Pilate would not have entertained Joseph’s request for Jesus’ body, as the body remaining on the cross and becoming food for scavengers was the whole point of using the crucifixion method of execution.


[1] In fact, the penal substitution reading often leads to absurdities, such as taking Hebrews 10:10-14 to mean that Christ’s sacrifice sanctified us against all sin past, present, and future, and thus Christians are free to sin all they want (even though later in chapter 10, Hebrews says the opposite—that Christians who should know better but persist in sin will be dealt with all the more harshly; cf. Hebrews 12:6). Sin and sickness still abound, so Christ’s death didn’t eliminate them; but believers having died to sin (Romans 6:1-23) are no longer slaves to sin (John 8:34), but rather slaves to Christ (Romans 1:1; James 1:1). The conservative model entails that since God punished Jesus, nothing can affect our salvation and right-standing with God, which is absurd and unjust. Likewise, 1 John 2 calls Christ our advocate, entailing the absurd consequence for a penal substitution interpretation that Jesus as lawyer defends the exact same case to the Father for every new believer, as though the Father didn’t understand Jesus’ argument the first 100 million times.

[2] Wonder/awe represents a true metanoia or change of mind/perspective and heart. For example, you may be living your life according to the perspective of the traditional definition of marriage when you encounter a block in the path (aporia) that can’t be appropriated (LGBTQ+ rights), something beyond Being (epeikena tes ousias) that produces wonder and invites you to deconstruct and reconstruct your guiding idea in a more inclusive way—in this case the call of justice. This “beyond Being” Plato thus calls the idea tou agathou, the idea of the good.

[3] Ehrman points out that this verse is missing from the Codex Bezae, but it seems to have been moved there (or just “removed”?) by a scribe, as a polemic against the Jews (Ehrman, 2019). Some claim that the forgiveness is only made for the Jews, but the way that the scene is paired with that of Stephen in Acts seems to rather generally illustrate the love of enemy mandate and its transformational effect.

[4] What about original sin? Is that not what substitutionary atonement is trying to rectify? Scholars like Michael S. Heiser emphasize that nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures is the Eden story interpreted to mean the transmission of hereditary sin to the entire human race. It is thus questionable whether Paul intended it in this way in Romans, or whether he just meant that death entered the world through Adam and so the consequences of it, sin, entered the world along with it (e.g., the notion that we’re going to die anyway, so let’s eat, drink, and do whatever we feel like doing). Like the Pharisees, Paul believed in a general resurrection at the end of the age, but people were still sinful. Paul, by contrast, magnified this threat beyond measure in claiming that the end had actually begun with the resurrected Christ as the first fruits to be raised, and so in effect had concocted the perfect threat to encourage people to turn around their lives. Moreover, in the decades following God’s specially chosen one being executed, not only had God’s central promise of restoring the Davidic throne gone unrealized, but the Romans just destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.

[5] Mark is apparently imitating Homer here, with the Roman soldier taking the place of Telemachus. In several books Dennis MacDonald argues that the woman who anoints Jesus in chapter 14 of the Gospel of Mark is a reference to Eurycleia. She is the only one to recognize Jesus, and what she has done will be widely known, in the same way that Eurycleia is the only one to recognize Odysseus and whose name means “widely known.” With Athena’s help, Odysseus is restored to his true state and appearance. At first, Telemachus thinks that Odysseus is a god, but he finally realizes that Odysseus is his father, and the two are finally reunited.

[6] What sometimes goes unnoticed in reading the desperate Gethsemane prayer (where Jesus begs God for his life) is that Jesus thinks that God’s plan can be fulfilled without Jesus having to be brutally tortured and nailed to a cross to be eaten by scavenger birds, just like Isaac was only a near-sacrifice. Mark has Jesus say in Gethsemane: “He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me, yet not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:36). In other words, Jesus thought that he could have been God’s beloved condemned by the world and miraculously saved by God (e.g., in Jesus calling for a miraculous rescue by Elijah on the cross); that would still have fulfilled God’s plan of circumcision of the heart: to awaken a metanoia (change of heart/repentance) in people. But this thought by Jesus ignores the problem of Satanic influence, like Satan entering Judas, and so a dead and resurrected Christ was needed as a spirit to be welcomed into a believer’s heart, the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians‬ ‭2:14-16‬), Christ in you (Colossians 1:27)—to help people overcome Satan’s temptations and make them worthy of a positive heavenly judgment (1 Corinthians 15:17). God knew that Jesus had to die to become Christ In You for believers, the mind of Christ to battle Satan’s temptation—Christ being the ultimate resistor of Satan, as we see, for instance, with Satan’s temptations at the outset of Jesus’ ministry.

[7] Toward the end of the Apocalyptic Discourse at Mark 13:30-31, Jesus says: “In truth I tell you, before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place. Sky and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Well, by the time of Mark, this generation had already passed away (few ancients lived to 70 with an average life expectancy of 30 years). Satirically, Mark has Jesus add: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Surely many thought that the Jewish Roman war was the end-time cosmic event, but it wasn’t, and Jesus didn’t return to vanquish God’s enemies.

[8] Compare Adam and Eve’s eyes being opened (Genesis 3:7). As the law incarnate, Christ serves to open people’s eyes when the world realizes what it did to God’s beloved Jesus, and so we have an echo of the psalm: “Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). Likewise, in Deuteronomy we read: “And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, ‘You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt … those great signs and wonders [i.e., “wonderful things”]. Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear'” (Deuteronomy 29:2-4). Similarly, in Ephesians we read: “we are “darkened in [our] understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in [us], because of the hardness of [our] heart” (Ephesians 4:18; cf. Piper, 2017).

[9] In light of the differences between Luke/Acts and Paul’s letters, we sometimes reason that Luke didn’t have the letters of the great hero of Acts (Paul) even though Mark did. An alternative take is that Luke is doing a satirical reading of Paul’s letter that takes his interpretation of the cross from the Damascus moral influence conversion encounter with Jesus.

[10] Psalm 19 was definitely on the radar of the New Testament writers, Paul quoting 19:4 in Romans 10:18.

[11] Wanting to be found guilty in order to expose the corruption of the justice system is exactly the narrative that former President Donald J. Trump used to frame his May 30, 2024 felony convictions:

It’s a very sad thing that’s happening in our country…. It’s very bad for family. It’s very bad for friends and businesses. But I am honored to be involved in it because someone has to do it, and I might as well keep going and be the one….

I’m doing something for this country and I am doing something for our Constitution…. And this can’t be allowed to happen to other presidents.

Trump apologist Dinesh D’Souza notes: “The criminal targeting of Trump in multiple jurisdictions is backfiring. Democrats never realized they were putting the system itself on trial. Now the ultimate jury—the American people—will decide whether Trump’s the bad guy or whether the system is rotten to the core.” Regarding eyes being opened, interestingly, at the time Revelation was written, there was a famous medical school at Laodicea, and an “eye salve” was used that was a Phrygian powder (which Aristotle also mentions) used by oculists at the temple of Asclepius/Men Karou. Revelation 3:18 uses this reference in a spiritual sense, which I consider below. It should be noted that ancient healers were like medieval alchemists, whereby the surface level would be transforming a base metal into gold, but the higher metaphorical truth was seeing this as perfecting the soul. By way of analogy, Plutarch wrote a text for Isis priestess Clea explaining the higher figurative esoteric truth of her religion.

[12] The parallel between Plato’s impaled just man and Jesus has long been noted in Catholic thought. Even Pope Ratzinger said: “Plato goes so far as to write: ‘They will say that our just man will be scourged, racked, fettered, will have his eyes burned out, and at last, after all manner of suffering, will be impaled'” (Ratzinger, 1969, p. 292; cf. Plato, Republic, II.362a). Note that crucifixion is a kind of impalement, and that in the 2004 second edition of Ratzinger’s book, the translation was changed from “will be impaled” to “will be crucified.” Ratzinger added: “This passage, written four hundred years before Christ, is always bound to move a Christian deeply” (1969, p. 292).

[13] In his parody Aristophanes has Socrates run the Thinkery, a school for bums with which no self-respecting athletic young man dares to be associated. Strepsiades explains that students of the Thinkery learn how to turn inferior arguments into winning arguments, and that this is the only way that he can beat their aggrieved creditors in court. Socrates is presented in the Clouds as a petty thief, fraud, and sophist with a specious interest in metaphysical speculations. The ruler Cleon is also skewered in the play, as well as in Aristophanes play the Knights.

[14] Jesus could have just become a nuisance to the Romans and the Jews, causing both groups to want him dead. However, it’s unclear.

[15] Walsh suggests that the empty tomb theme is most like the ancient novels where entombed people become a god (apotheosis), a framework employed, for example, in Chariton’s ancient Chaereas and Callirhoe. So, methodologically, we don’t try to peel back to reach historical nuggets in the empty tomb story, but rather imagine an author saying that we have Jesus becoming supernatural, with tropes in ancient literature used to express such a thing. This theme makes sense of why in Jesus’ time bodies being stolen from graves was such a problem that Caesar had to issue an edict against it (in the famous “Nazareth Inscription”).

[16] There’s another Satyrica episode where a man (Eumolpus) afraid that he is going to die tells his followers to eat his body after his dies. We have multiple stories of overlapping themes and details between the Gospels and Satyrica. There are details of the letters of Pliny the Younger that appear in the Satyrica. A case can be made that the Satyrica was written by someone in Pliny’s intellectual circles; Pliny wrote to Trajan about how to deal with Christians. Are the Gospels reading the Satyrica, or is the Satyrica satirizing the Gospels?

[17] This exaggeration of evil for effect fits a New Testament pattern of hyperbole: faith can move a mountain; you can’t follow Jesus unless you hate your family; you have to sell all your possessions and give them to the poor to follow Jesus; a lustful eye is adultery; etc.

[18] Strong’s Concordance—James Strong’s 1890 Greek lexicon The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible—emphasizes at G3341 that metanoia is especially the change of mind of those who have begun to abhor their errors and misdeeds, and have determined to enter upon a better course of life, such that that course embraces both a recognition of sin and sorrow for it and hearty amendment, the tokens and effects of which are good deeds.

[19] We again see the “absurdity” of God needing his beloved to be sacrificed mirroring God requesting that Abraham sacrifice his miracle child, whereby it is the faithfulness of Abraham and Isaac to God’s plan that is key, not the actual death (cf. Hebrews 5:7). In Jewish literature around the turn of the era, Isaac is portrayed as the prototype of the voluntary and joyful martyr, willing to go bravely to his death. Josephus describes Isaac as a 25-year-old who rushes to the altar knowing that he is to be the victim. According to this portrayal, in future times of distress God will remember Isaac’s binding, the Akedah, and heed the prayers of the Jewish people for deliverance from enemies (like Jesus delivers from the prime demonic enemy of Sin). Analogously, Jesus’ wrongful death made it possible for God to forgive because the true nature of their depravity was un-hidden (“a-letheia”) for people. You can’t repent for something that you are unaware of—you’ll just keep sinning.

[20] The impressive apprenticeship lineage that the great teacher John the Baptist attributed to Jesus (like the impressive genealogy in Matthew and Luke) may be just as fictive as Paul’s claim to have learned at the feet of the great Gamaliel. Helmut Koester questions if Paul studied under this famous rabbi, arguing that there is a marked contrast in the tolerance that Gamaliel is said to have expressed about Christianity with the “murderous rage” against Christians that Paul is described as having prior to his conversion (Acts 8:1-3). Instead, what Paul seems to mean is that he is an heir to Gamaliel’s method of double meaning, Paul the Jew to the Jew, and Paul the Greek to the Greek. I will consider this in the next article.

[21] If the nature of the death of John the Baptist has been altered to make it a humiliating and wrongful literary pair with Jesus, the question naturally arises: could the nature of Jesus’ death have been modified in a similar way to make it a literary pair with the death of Haman? Certainly the cross serves a rhetorical function (crucified with Christ; pick up your cross and follow Jesus). Whatever the case, Jerry Sumney has meticulously documented the pre-Pauline mentions of the cross, so the characterization is there in our oldest material. As an alternative, Paul also says that Christ was “hung on a tree” (Galatians 3:13, referencing Deuteronomy 21:22-23). This would traditionally suggest someone being hung after they were killed, though what we find in Philo, Josephus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls is a tendency to apply Deuteronomy 21:22-23 to then-contemporary forms of execution, notably crucifixion. If Jesus died by other means, such information is not to be found in the historical record in the way that we can contrast the death of John the Baptist in the Gospels and Josephus.

(for all three parts)

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