(2/2) The Peculiar Case Of The Martyrdom Of Polycarp and interpreting the Death of Jesus: Erasing The Cross From History
Last time I touched on the problematic historical problems caused by Mark theologizing his portrayal of the cross with Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 (and Wisdom of Solomon with Matthew), and Paul theologizing the cross with Deuteronomy 21:23 (“Hung on a tree”) in Galatians 3:10, 13.
When Paul says at its very core the cross is theologized, this raises the question of whether the original Christians didn’t mean Jesus was crucified, but rather this was figurative language meaning Jesus was a man the world had turned on and viewed as the lowest of the low? Perhaps the crucifixion never happened? There are a few reason for this:
The cross was the most humiliating and most brutal form of public execution enacted by society, so would serve as a great framework for understanding Jesus as turned on by the world. And, perhaps the writers give us a wink that it didn’t really happen because they have Pilate question why Jesus expired so quickly, suggesting he didn’t have the true experience of the cross. Why else is that episode included? Moreover, beyond the historicity of the cross being in question, the meaning of the cross is figurative for Paul, speaking of “being crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20),” the death of our fleshly and worldly nature. Matthew echoes this figurative nature of the cross when he has Jesus say: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Mat 16:24).”
If the original Christians were allegorizing Deuteronomy to create a deeper figurative meaning of the cross, then the whole narrative comes into question. If we rigorously apply the same methodological skepticism to the accounts of the death of Jesus that we do to that of Polycarp, everything becomes problematic. It becomes a Christianizing of the impaled just man in book 2 of Plato’s Republic and the death of Socrates giving thanks for the poison, as I mentioned last time.
With this we are at the deepest level of skepticism, because even mythicists argue for the historicity of the crucifixion, just that it was believed to have occurred in outer space. But, what I wanted to show last time with the problematic account of the death of Polycarp is we are on literary grounds here, not historical ones. Analogously, if we only had the gospels, it would be obvious what the humiliating nature of the beheading of John the Baptist was. That is, until we read the contradicting account of the death of John the Baptist in Josephus.