I posted this back in 2011 on Dr. R Joseph Hoffmann’s blog, but it still bears repeating today:
The central drama of the Christian Religion, the crucifixion narrative in Mark, is historical fiction. We can know that Jesus was crucified through other means, but the narrative elements never happened.
I want people to understand that the interpretation of the cross where Jesus died for my sin to appease God’s holy wrath is wrong. This interpretation has a vague analogy to 4 Maccabees, but is not how the overall NT imagery is being used. It’s common sense. How does killing/punishing an innocent child in Africa for the crimes of a sadistic felon in Chicago serve justice? And, if there is one thing the God of the Hebrew Scriptures can do and does, it’s forgive.
Mark is inventing details for Jesus’s crucifixion narrative by recapitulating psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. Paul doesn’t have a passion narrative So:
The Passion of the Christ in Mark:
(Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 in Haggadic Midrash)
Likely the clearest Prophecy about Jesus is the entire 53rd chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah 53:3-7 is especially unmistakable: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”
The only thing is, as all critical scholars agree:
- Isaiah wasn’t making a prophesy about Jesus. Mark was doing a haggadic midrash on Isaiah, inventing details of Jesus’s death to imitate Isaiah. So, Mark depicts Jesus as one who is despised and rejected, a man of sorrow acquainted with grief. He then describes Jesus as wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. The Servant in Isaiah, like Jesus in Mark, is silent before his accusers. In Isaiah it says of the servant with his stripes we are healed, which Mark turned into the story of the scourging of Jesus. This is, in part, is where the penal substitution atonement interpretation comes from, but it would be silly to say II Isaiah was talking about this kind of atonement – simply consult any Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53 like https://aish.com/isaiah_53_the_suffering_servant/. Anyway, the servant is numbered among the transgressors in Isaiah, so Jesus is crucified between two thieves. The Isaiah servant would make his grave with the rich, So Jesus is buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea in Matthew, a person of means.
- Then, as Price says
The substructure for the crucifixion in chapter 15 is, as all recognize, Psalm 22, from which derive all the major details, including the implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 24//Psalm 22:16b), the dividing of his garments and casting lots for them (Mark 15:24//Psalm 22:18), the “wagging heads” of the mockers (Mark 15:20//Psalm 22:7), and of course the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34//Psalm 22:1). Matthew adds another quote, “He trusts in God. Let God deliver him now if he desires him” (Matthew 7:43//Psalm 22:8), as well as a strong allusion (“for he said, ‘I am the son of God’” 27:43b) to Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-20, which underlies the whole story anyway (Miller, p. 362), “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life: for if the righteous man is God’s son he will help him and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture that we may find out how gentle he is and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
As for other details, Crossan (p. 198) points out that the darkness at noon comes from Amos 8:9, while the vinegar and gall come from Psalm 69:21. It is remarkable that Mark does anything but call attention to the scriptural basis for the crucifixion account. There is nothing said of scripture being fulfilled here. It is all simply presented as the events of Jesus’ execution. It is we who must ferret out the real sources of the story. This is quite different, e.g., in John, where explicit scripture citations are given, e.g., for Jesus’ legs not being broken to hasten his death (John 19:36), either Exodus 12:10, Numbers 9:12, or Psalm 34:19-20 (Crossan, p. 168). Whence did Mark derive the tearing asunder of the Temple veil, from top to bottom (Mark 15:38)? Perhaps from the death of Hector in the Iliad (MacDonald, pp. 144-145). Hector dies forsaken by Zeus. The women of Troy watched from afar off (as the Galilean women do in Mark 15:40), and the whole of Troy mourned as if their city had already been destroyed “from top to bottom,” just as the ripping of the veil seems to be a portent of Jerusalem’s eventual doom.
The crucifixion story also seems fictional because of us being told what Jesus said from the cross, but also what Jesus and the high priest said to each other, and what Jesus and the crowd said to each other (who would have been around to record these conversations?). And so we can propose there may not be any historical content with a fairly comprehensive haggadic midrash reading of The Passion of the Christ in Mark. We can establish on other grounds that the historical Jesus was crucified, but the narrative details in Mark are historical fiction.