Digesting the Cross

What if the Gospel writers didn’t know why the crucifixion happened? What if the Gospels are all an attempt to cover over this fact by making it seem increasingly predicted, inevitable, mysterious? Making the cross something that promises meaningfulness, without a concrete meaning?

The basic strategy is twofold. First, establish Jesus’ authority. He’s the messiah (though he kept this fact secret for most of his career, according to Mark), he’s the one who was predicted by certain decontextualized fragments of the Hebrew Scriptures — it’s all right there in front of your face! And once we have that established, we primarily rely on his authority to establish the necessity of the crucifixion. He reaches a turning point in his ministry and begins mysteriously invoking this paradoxical event. He knows it’s coming and meets it with calm assurance. It’s the culmination of his mission on earth.

It’s often said that the Gospels are all Passion Narratives with introductory materials. Clearly the crucifixion is central to all their accounts. Yet I am beginning to suspect that the mountain of detail is meant to distract from the fact that they don’t know why it’s happening. It’s persuasion through repetition and ritualization — “Do this in memory of me!” Why? Because I said so. And if you don’t understand, you can take comfort that the original apostles, almost uniformly portrayed as bumbling dolts, didn’t understand either.

The most meaning we get is that it sets the apocalyptic sequence in motion by inaugurating the resurrection of the dead. But why this specific event? Paul begins to develop some ideas about its relationship to law and justice and human divisions — but for the Gospel writers, it basically happened because it happened. We have to trust that it’s the right thing because Jesus is the messiah and he knew what he was doing.

12 Responses to “Digesting the Cross”

  1. Iris Says:

    This is a really interesting observation. For such a pivotal event in Christianity, you would think there would be more clarity on why it had to happen. This is just one of many examples where people are expected to accept and not question. At least it’s not as bad as when the reason for something happening is that God was just testing someone, like when He tells Abraham to sacrifice his own son.

  2. Lee M. Says:

    Really intrigued by this idea. But Is the hypothesis affected by the assumption that Paul’s letters are older than the gospels? I know the gospels undoubtedly draw on traditions going back much earlier, but Paul’s notion that Jesus died “for us” also lays claim to a very earlier tradition if you buy that he was incorporating older, quasi-creedal materials into some of his letters. (Of course, there’s also the thorny issue of the extent to which the gospel writers/editors were aware of Paul’s letters.)

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The pseudo-Pauline letters may perhaps serve as evidence that Paul’s message was not well understood by his immediate contemporaries. In general, I’m reluctant to crawl in the weeds of hypothetical sources and oral traditions — all I know is that when I read the texts of the gospels, I’m not finding a clear reason for why the cross happened except that it was necessary in some incohate way.

  4. Adam Says:

    It’s a very interesting proposition. That the cosmic balance shifted with the crucifixion event. Internalized and externalized contradictions accumulate over time and gain a devastating momentum of their own. It’s not just that they sow the seeds of the demise of the superstructure, they give them shape at the base. Things in a sense do become inevitable; structural forces draw their energies from internal systems within the system. These systems have their own dynamic and negative (paradoxical) feedback loops. Structural forces in a sense move themselves. Hillary Clinton shapes less the body politic then it does her, she is melded within it and her humanity is removed from whoever she exercises power over. If we listed today the forces that have shape the world, stronger to weaker, our own ethical agency is fairly insignificant. Actually, small mad blackmailing groups are more adept at shaping the world rather than the individual agencies or masses of people with common interests.

    If we think about Christ, the scene is already set in a way, in a double allusion for Christianity. In one sense, it is the end of (the then) world (Roman Imperialism and the distorted Jewish polity are ripe for collapse) and the other in the sense of a much broader historical time. It’s a truism of psychoanalysis that in a rigidified system on the brink of collapse, you misrecognize what is meant to be your own ethical life which presents itself in a guise or screen of another, but particularly when you aren’t aware of how you yourself have been shaped. Christ arises precisely because of the conditions that have already been created within the divisions of the Jewish polity. In a sense the return of the repressed is the return of Judaic ethics. We don’t track enough the political development of the Pharisee’s & Zealots, Sadducee and Essene’s under Roman occupation. It’s not just that the Pharisee’s moved against him, they were keenly aware of the powers he was up against and feared them far more then they feared his message – they’ve turned cruel. It’s more difficult for groups to relent than individuals.

    ‘But why this specific event?’, its position in historical time makes it significant, but it never fits perfectly because perfect situations rarely do. Radical movements like Christianity always arise through causality, ready to be assimilated in the superstructure. Like biology and environment they determine one another. Perhaps it was when systems of control became far too complex, divisions far too wide for a community within a powerful empire – hence the befuddled disciples. Christ is the charismatic leader who illuminates this, so is it really that surprising that the disciples, with all the resistances of ‘bumbling dolts’ don’t get it either when he disappears? The plunge into darkness is the loss of insight and sense. ‘May God increase my madness and your sense’ Al Junayd writes.

  5. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Paul certainly has a formulation of the over-arching effect of the Cross, and 1 Corinthians encapsulates his thinking on this: we preach Christ crucified. The Cross scandalizes both Paul’s Jews and Greeks. Luke and John also have a sense of the overall effect of the Cross; the ‘road to Emmaus’ pericope recaps the whole shebang and contextualizes the meaning of the Cross in unity of the ministry-passion-resurrection narrative (I’ve written extensively about this over on my blog). John is already theologizing about it; Mark and Matthew have their own particularly ‘semitic’ take on it as well. But, if I understand your comment, you interpret even these formulations as merely formal ‘window dressing’ for the essential aporia of the Cross.

    It is practically irrelevant if the evangelists really understood or could articulate ‘the’ meaning of the Cross. The narratives put the Cross to ‘us’ and it is far more important to the evangelists that ‘we’ meditate on it. “Who do you say that I am?”

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Joe, You’re repeating the gesture that I’m critiquing — presupposing that the cross is meaningful and placing the burden on me to find “my” meaning. The Paul part that you are quoting just asserts that the cross is important because we preach it and relies on the appeal of the counterintuitive. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus again just asserts its inevitability and connects it up with the Scriptures in a way that’s supposed to be meaningful — but again, why this event? It’s the promise of meaningfulness with no concrete meaning.

    And why does it have to be meaningful at all? Why not just a predictably tragic end dealt out by a predictably unjust tyrrany? Because as even a cursory reading of the history of Christianity teaches us, believing that the brutal torture and extra-judicial execution of a harmless preacher was the Best and Most Important Thing That Ever Happens takes you to some pretty fucked up places pretty quickly.

  7. Joe Calandrino Says:

    I was hoping not to fall into that trap, Adam, and I thought to acknowledge the ‘aporia’ of the Cross as a measure of the difficulty you cite. ‘Why does it have to meaningful at all?’ It doesn’t of course, just as countless other crucifixions are meaningless ‘tragic end[s].’ But the religious claims made for this particular crucifixion make it different. A meaningless Cross probably would not have made the papers, in this case, the (good) news. Nonetheless, the BMITTEH is not inevitable.

    Your query is itself an aporia, as it ponders the possibility that the evangelists simply found a particular Cross more interesting than the many others, and thought to fabricate a narrative around it in order to give it some purchase, a sense of respectability dressed in predictability, mystery, anticipation, momentum, etc. What made this Cross more interesting to them? If it is really a show about nothing, why go on with it? Is it because the cast has some rapport? Are the dolts compelling characters? I agree with your characterization of the event for the evangelists: it happened because it happened. Why then write about it 40-60 years after the event?

    It probably has to do with a particular aspect of this particular tragedy. To create a narrative to surround an event in order to cover-up the ignorance or general lack of understanding of the writer regarding that event is a stroke of rhetorical genius on the part of the evangelists, and the best description of the genre of ‘gospel’ I’ve heard to date on your part, Adam.

  8. Daniel Says:

    “But the religious claims made for this particular crucifixion make it different. A meaningless Cross probably would not have made the papers, in this case, the (good) news.”

    This looks to be a capsule form of the gesture critiqued in the post. The cross is important because of “religious claims” and because it’s “the good news”. Neither of those actually adds any content beyond the mere assurance that content has been added. There is no “aporia” here, merely obfuscation. Aporiae occur from a surplus of content, where it doesn’t seem that everything can hang together. Claiming that the cross presents us with any kind of “aporia” is no better than claiming that it is “religiously important” or “the good news”; it is nothing but the mere show of an added content. The actual content, or aporia, or religious importance, or good news of the cross remains just something that’s supposed to be there because… “???” — For so many people have insisted that there is content there! Fifty million cigarette smokers can’t be wrong!

  9. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Fair enough, Daniel; but what you are defining as aporia here, I would call the event, or saturated phenomenon (after Marion). The importance of the Cross relates to the text, not necessarily to world in which it was conceived. The interesting thing going on in this conversation is the convergence of history, rhetoric, literature, occurrence and event. What Adam K is saying (and I’m not so sure I know what he’s saying) is that the ambiguity in the Cross has led the evangelists to construct a text that offers a reading of it while retaining ambiguity; you call the technique ‘obfuscation’ and I have deduced from Adam’s problem (why it happened, what does it mean) that it is ‘generic’. Is the aporia of the Cross an event or saturated phenomenon? The multitude of interpretations of the Cross do not necessarily make it so, but you raise an fascinating question.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Maybe this will clarify: I think that both the patristic ransom theory and Anselm’s Cur deus homo give the cross a clear and comprehensible meaning, as do the penal-substitutionary theories that arise after Anselm. So it can be done. And I’m perfectly happy with the patristic theory, personally. I object to the other two theories on specific theological grounds, not because they’re too rational or reductive or whatever.

    A point that may also clarify: I don’t think that for the gospel writers or the early community the cross is “ambiguous.” I think it’s fucking traumatic and nearly inassimilable. Perhaps ritualizing/repeating it is the best they could have realistically done at that point.

  11. Joe Calandrino Says:

    I appreciate these clarifying remarks, Adam. Perhaps you might someday share those ‘specific theological grounds’ as I also consider theories of the Cross emerging from, for example, feudal sensibilities inadequate.

    Peter Rollins has presented a cogent psychoanalytic response to the ‘trauma’ of the Cross in many venues, from his blog to his _Insurrection_ and other works. I find these investigations provocative but something less than compelling.

    On a related theme, I do not think, for example, that the Resurrection is a construction of coping; that would be an oversimplification of that phenomenon and and unfortunate place to begin theology in general. I tend to hold an inseparability of Cross and Resurrection, and that they represent a unity whose ‘parts’ would be equally ‘traumatic.’

    In any event, the historical problem you pose is very interesting to me. Setting aside ‘ambiguity,’ how do you visit the trauma of the Cross upon the twelve and the disciples on the one hand, and upon the evangelists and their communities on the other? Do you see part of the problem as one of access—there is no recourse to the presumed initial trauma—or that the only trauma is the inherited trauma of the very early church?

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I make it a point not to read Peter Rollins’ work. Glad I’m not missing a lot.

    Certainly we don’t have access to the “original” trauma, but I do think the trauma is fundamentally a theological one — a traumatic event that yet again throws off the theological bases of apocalyptic thought, which themselves resulted from a traumatic unraveling of the premises of prophetic thought surrounding exile and return, etc. Resurrection isn’t “merely” a compensation, but it is obviously also a compensation and a demand placed upon God to set right a situation that has apparently gone completely off the rails.


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