The Cross as an Event
By Dr. David Flusser
Let me say as I begin this talk that when I speak to you about the meaning of the Cross, I am not speaking as a Jew whom Christians have invited in to hear his opinion, but as a scholar who only wishes to help his friends to come to a better understanding of the Cross as a historical event. Not that in so doing I am saying that the Cross is only a historical event. On the contrary, I consider it much more than such words seem to indicate.
Let us begin with the question: Is there a difference between the execution of Socrates and the crucifixion of Jesus? Indeed, very early, Christians noted the similarity between these two tragic events. But there is an enormous, decisive difference. Had the Greek philosopher not been executed by the authorities of Athens, the development of Greek philosophy would not have changed an iota. But had Jesus not been crucified, there would have been no Christianity at all as we know it. This is true even if followers of the forlorn figure on the Cross had risen to keep alive his example and teaching.
I do not want to speak about the manifold development of so-called Christology in historical Christian thought. I am sure you are all aware of the various motifs in theologies of the Cross. Some of these theologies have been of great comfort to believers and most of them seek to interpret what really happened. However, today, when so much of the Faith has grown weak in many minds, these interpretations miss the point. This is mainly due to their detachment from the event of the Cross itself.
Judaism and Christianity are faiths built on facts. Modern views of faith, recognizing that faith is the vital element in religion, tend to abandon facts because they seem less certain than the need for faith. This is the reason we hear so much about demythologization. In reality, however, to demythologize is to dehistorize religion. Demythology, at least for many of those who would like to abandon the search for a true historical picture of Jesus and the earliest faith of Jewish Christianity, is simply dehistorization.
Let me give an obvious illustration. The exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt not only became in time the classic symbol of liberation from slavery but was itself an event of history which had very concrete historical consequences. Through it the children of Israel were led to the desert where the Law was propounded and accepted. Through it the commandment of the Law about being kind to "strangers and sojourners" picked up its most powerful fillip: one's attitude to the stranger is to be dictated by the memory of the way one felt as a stranger in Egypt.
In the same way, the Cross is rooted in Christian experience. Not only is faith in the Cross at the root of Christian faith, the event of the Cross is itself at the root. Jesus did not die as a martyr solely--many, many good men have been killed as crudest criminals. The Cross is much more than martyrdom.
It is true that Christians can have some understanding of the Cross due to their faith that he was the Son of God, the Messiah. But even the belief in Jesus' Sonship does not explain the historical meaning of the Cross. You may say, if you wish, that Jesus, as the Son of Man, Son of God, and Messiah of necessity suffered a more significant death than that of other martyrs and that therefore the Cross is completely unique. But by saying this, you have not really said anything about the Cross itself. You may say that the Father offered his Son as a sacrifice to expiate the sins of those who believe, but it seems to me that by putting the problem that way--without knowing Jesus himself--you are speaking about only a theological or mythological event but not of a historical event in the full sense of the word.
I do not think that the so-called "mystery of the Cross" can be understood without the historical Jesus and his teaching and message. The message of the Cross is the crown of his life and teachings. Through the Cross the faith of Jesus was welded to the faith in Jesus.
This was not always so understood, of course. Too often in the ancient Church and in the Middle Ages, and even in modern Catholicism and Protestantism, what happened before the Crucifixion was unimportant for theologians and common Christians. In contrast to this over-emphasis, liberal Christian theology came to care little for the Cross, Jesus and his teaching becoming their main interest, with the result that the Cross was eclipsed. However, such a thing can happen only if certain important parts of Jesus' message are glossed over. If the central elements of Jesus' teaching, such as sin, goodness, and faith in God, are eliminated and the Kingdom of Heaven is understood as human progress only, Jesus emerges as a liberal teacher of sublime ethics, but the centrality of the Cross is destroyed.
Happily, we can today understand the teaching of Jesus much better than it was once possible to do, particularly by getting a clearer picture of the Judaism of his day. We now know not only many of the links of Jesus' sayings with the Jewish schools of his time, but we can understand better what Jesus demanded. We can see that he expanded the precept of mutual love to include even the enemy. Jesus taught this because he was sure God loved both sinners and righteous men, and it is significant that he taught this without claiming that God loves sinners because they may repent and become righteous!
Jesus did not say that by our love for sinners we would make them better. On the other hand, he had no sympathy for sin itself and insisted that God recompenses good and punishes wickedness. The message of Jesus is both a revolutionary moral teaching and a revolutionary moral approach. Even without the Cross, one can see that this is a message of Good News.
I have said that the Cross is the crown of Jesus' message about sin and atonement. It is not only an accidental tragedy, as was the poisoning of Socrates. The righteous one who died as a criminal was also the man who said that he was sent not to the righteous but to the sinner.
It is, therefore, of the greatest importance to know that the Cross is the historical outworking of Jesus' doctrine of sin and righteousness. Historically speaking, the Crucifixion opened the way for sinners, and, as it seems, for the Gentiles, but this was possible only because of the teaching of the righteous crucified one.
Having said all this, I must, however, make it clear that had Jesus desired his death as a tool of atonement for sinners, the whole event would have been meaningless as event. Had this been true, Jesus' death would only have been a sublime theological suicide. Jesus begged his Father for life in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane--he did not seek death. Death and the Cross came only because he submitted himself to God's will.
Thus, the external and internal events of Jesus' life and death, his teaching, and the Cross form a unity. If one wants to understand the theology of the Cross, he has to begin with Jesus' baptism, he has to listen to his teaching, and he has to see his silent obedience in Gethsemane. Then the horrible and violent death of Jesus will be an end--and also a beginning.
Professor David Flusser was born in Vienna in 1917. An internationally distinguished biblical scholar, he is noted for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Essene Christianity, and Judaism at the time of Christ. Professor Flusser studied classical philology at the University of Prague, lectured there from 1947 to 1950, and received a doctorate from Hebrew University in Jerusalem where he served as professor of History of Religion. His publications include The Dead Sea Sect and Prepauline Christianity, Scripta Hierosolymitana 5 (1958), and Jesus (German edition 1968, English edition 1970).
Yavo Digest, 1987
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