Friday, October 27, 2006


Jesus' Self-Understanding

I have been desiring to blog about this matter for a while, but the complexity of such a delicate topic always stopped me from doing that. Not that things have magically become simpler now, but - as a book I recently read has it - writing is an excellent way to put ideas at work. And indeed, it is by writing posts for this blog that many times I have been able to focus issues a bit better, to investigate paths that without the (self-imposed) "need" to write and put things down as clearly as possible I would have hardly considered, and to receive valuable feedback that has shaped my readings and understandings.

On with the post, then. By the way, I have written, erased and re-written it more than a few times in the past weeks, and will probably modify it again in the near future.

I shall consider here Jesus' self-understanding. How did Jesus understand himself and his role?

First of all, a brief note on why this issue is of key theological importance. In short, the issue matters because if Jesus' self-understanding can be shown to be substantially different from what Christology describes him to be, then it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Christology itself is nothing but a gross misunderstanding. If Christ is not the first and best Christologian, Christianity could at best be described as a human, unfounded, erroneous, self-deceptive interpretation of irrelevant events; at worst, as a (perhaps conscious) attempt to create and sustain power structures that have in reality nothing to do with the man and the events they are supposedly based upon.

Unless otherwise noted, all English biblical translations are from the ESV; Josephus' English translations are by W. Whiston.

Several times I have heard or read that Jesus was identified by his contemporaries as "the Messiah that was expected in Late Second Temple times". While this is possible, the statement needs at least some explanation. Let's start with this quote:
There was certainly occasion for the memory of popularly elected kings to be revived in late Second Temple times when the Romans conquered Palestine and particularly when they imposed the tyrannical Herod as king. The Idumean strongman conquered the people with the aid of Roman legions, then taxed them heavily to support his lavish Hellenistic-style monarchy. As noted above, there is little by way of literary evidence for any longing for a messiah among the literate groups. But it would not be surprising if the ordinary people (who left no literary remains), suffering under an illegitimate and oppressive king installed by an alien imperial power, had been eager for an “anointed” king from their own ranks, like Saul or David of old. (R.A. Horsley, Messianic Movements in Judaism, from Freedman, David Noel, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, New York: Doubleday 1997, 1992 - henceforth ABD)
And actually, "Information to be gleaned from Josephus on certain aspects of these “kings” fits well with the interpretation of the biblical tradition concerning the popular “anointing” of kings. [...] The heads of the movements that arose at the death of Herod were all of humble origins." (ditto)

Now let's read some excerpts from Josephus' Antiquities:
Now at this time there were ten thousand other disorders in Judea, which were like tumults, because a great number put themselves into a warlike posture, either out of hopes of gain to themselves, or out of enmity to the Jews. [...]
There was also Judas, the son of that Ezekias who had been head of the robbers; which Ezekias was a very strong man, and had with great dificulty been caught by Herod. This Judas, having gotten together a multitude of men of a profligate character about Sepphoris in Galilee, made an assault upon the palace [there,] and seized upon all the weapons that were laid up in it, and with them armed every one of those that were with him, and carried away what money was left there; and he became terrible to all men, by tearing and rending those that came near him; and all this in order to raise himself, and out of an ambitious desire of the royal dignity; and he hoped to obtain that as the reward not of his virtuous skill in war, but of his extravagance in doing injuries. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17.10.4-5)
There are a few points that are worth noting here.

First, it is difficult to exactly determine who the historical characters at play really were. For example, Judas was an extremely common name; Josephus himself mentions three rebels called Judas within ten years; Acts 5:36-37 also mention some Theudas and Judas:
For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. (Acts 5:36-37)
but it is difficult to be more precise and, by the way, reconcile Josephus with Acts from an historical point of view.

Second, there was apparently a substantial amount of (maybe individually small) rebellious movements. Gamaliel, in Acts 5:35-39 (see above), is also a witness to the widespread existence of these movements, and "Christians" are considered by him (he was a Pharisee, "teacher of the law esteemed by all the people", νομοδιδάσκαλος τίμιος παντὶ τῷ λαῷ; he is also quoted in the Mishnah, where it is said that "when he died the glory of the Torah ended") as belonging to one of them. Interestingly, and perhaps not too surprisingly, Josephus says that Judas focused, both in recruiting adepts and in his military pursuits, around Sepphoris, which was one of the two sizeable cities in Galilee - the other being Tiberias. Interestingly, I say, because Jesus, on the other hand, seems to carefully avoid either of these two centers of power. I'll return to this point.

Third, Judas became the leader of a movement "in order to raise himself, and out of an ambitious desire of the royal dignity." (in order "to be somebody", as Acts put it.) This "messianic" desire was apparently common enough: Josephus goes on to speak of a Simon,
who had been a slave of Herod the king, but in other respects a comely person, of a tall and robust body; he was one that was much superior to others of his order, and had had great things committed to his care. This man was elevated at the disorderly state of things, and was so bold as to put a diadem on his head, while a certain number of the people stood by him, and by them he was declared to be a king, and thought himself more worthy of that dignity than any one else. [...] The royal palace also at Amathus, by the river Jordan, was burnt down by a party of men that were got together, as were those belonging to Simon. And thus did a great and wild fury spread itself over the nation, because they had no king to keep the multitude in good order, and because those foreigners who came to reduce the seditious to sobriety did, on the contrary, set them more in a flame, because of the injuries they offered them, and the avaricious management of their affairs. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17.10.6)
Amathus is described by Josephus in Wars of the Jews 1.4.2 as "the strongest of all the fortresses that were about Jordan", where "the most precious of all the possessions of Theodorus, the son of Zeno" could be found, in a passage recounting the wars of the Jewish king Alexander Jannaeus (104-78 BCE). About this Alexander Jannaeus, of the Hasmonean dinasty, I'd like to add that he is often said to have led "a fanatical war to impose Jewish customs and to annihilate Hellenistic culture" (so for example the ABD in Decapolis, by J.-P. Rey-Coquais), but it looks more like his wars were prompted by political rather than religious considerations.

What is of note here is the emphasis on the physical appearances of the would-be kings, an emphasis stressing the fact that the kingdom these people were struggling for was a kingdom of power. This is all made very clear once again by Josephus:
But because Athronges, a person neither eminent by the dignity of his progenitors, nor for any great wealth he was possessed of, but one that had in all respects been a shepherd only, and was not known by any body; yet because he was a tall man, and excelled others in the strength of his hands, he was so bold as to set up for king. This man thought it so sweet a thing to do more than ordinary injuries to others, that although he should be killed, he did not much care if he lost his life in so great a design. He had also four brethren, who were tall men themselves, and were believed to be superior to others in the strength of their hands, and thereby were encouraged to aim at great things, and thought that strength of theirs would support them in retaining the kingdom. Each of these ruled over a band of men of their own; for those that got together to them were very numerous. [...] And this man retained his power a great while; he was also called king, and had nothing to hinder him from doing what he pleased. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17.10.7)
While there was probably no direct connection between the "messianic" movements descrived by Josephus in Ant. 17.10 and the movement started by Jesus some decades later, it is entirely possible and even likely that the memory of previous political attempts at liberation from the Roman oppressor, and the memory of people wishing to be "kings", was still present in the minds of the people of Galilee. Even if some of the movements were individually small, still it appears clear from Josephus that Varus had to lead a Roman army of non-negligeable size to reconquer the areas that were occupied by them. Now, for what regards my use of the term "messianic movements" above, let's recall that Messiah derives from the Hebrew masiah, meaning "anointed", and biblically this anointment was typically applied to kings, specifically of Davidic descent (but Cyrus was also described as "anointed"). The use of the term Messiah to identify a priest (who would rise alongside the Davidic Messiah, hence the question of the "two Messiah") is apparently first found at Qumran. Anyway, note that Athronges was a shepherd, not known by anybody, like David.

Now, even if (I shall clarify this "if" soon) Jesus himself did not subscribe to a "political liberation agenda", still I would say that he "had to have in mind" that the kind of background I have described above was present into the minds of his audience (plus, that background was also into his own mind). The words "had to have in mind" may seem an unusual or even inappropriate way of dealing with the "inherent freedom of the Son of God" to people used to approach Jesus mostly from the viewpoint of his divine nature, but is a logical statement if we wish to maintain that he was fully a man, and a man of his time. Let me repeat: an important point to make is that Jesus, regardless of how he considered himself and his role, had to have in mind that others would have considered him a political, perhaps a nationalistic, leader. The NT confirms that this is what seems to have happened: take for example the incident at Emmaus, Lk 24:21, "But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel". Outside the NT, the Slavonic version of Josephus' Wars of the Jews provides further confirmation:
And many of the multitude followed after him and hearkened to his teaching; and many souls were in commotion, thinking that thereby the Jewish tribes might free themselves from Roman hands. (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Slavonic version, passage 12, between W.J. 2.174 and 2.175, translated by H. Thackeray - quoted in J. Taylor, Where did Christianity come from?, 2001, p.175)
But if this is the case, then interesting questions about Jesus' psychological attitude arise. If you talk to people, and want to communicate something to them, wouldn't you act differently, depending on whether you know your audience's background or not? Surely the way you communicate any message is not neutral, but depends on your audience and in particular on the knowledge you have of your audience. And Jesus was apparently fairly convincing with his first disciples, which at least means that he was able to communicate his message effectively -- i.e. using categories and ideas that were not too alien to them.

Whether we believe that Jesus had a special status (he was the Son of God) or not (he was one of - for example - the many people heading some sort of revolutionary movement), it seems that he was somewhat compelled to take part of the history and psychology of his fellow countrymen. In particular, to state something that should be obvious, in his teaching he did not (better perhaps to use a stronger term: could not, and this could not holds in both cases: whether we wish to underline his divine, or his human nature) use the categories that were developed in the following centuries like, for example, the definitions crystallized in the Chalcedonian statements. But now a pressing question is this: would Jesus see himself reflected in those definitions? If we say "no", then we are saying that Christology is in itself a (fairly elaborate) construction which is independent from Christ. If we say "yes", then we need to show how a "high Christology" a' la Chalcedon can be correlated to how Jesus saw and presented himself. I plan to return to this point in a future post. For the time being, let's stick to the theme of how Jesus saw himself.

Like Jesus, the first disciples were men of their time and, judging by what we can read in the NT, they were also of different education and social extraction (cf. Mk 1:16-20; 2:13-14). This is consistent with the fact that, differently from the customs of scribes and Pharisees (and Essenes, for that matters), in his teachings, or actions, or however we want to call his praxis in general, Jesus targetted not a particular audience, specialists or to-be specialists, but rather people as a whole (this of course does not exclude that he might have imparted more specific teachings to a subset of his followers). As men of their time, the disciples would therefore easily associate a would-be messiah with a political agenda and, again by what can be read in the NT, this is exactly what happened.

But was there a complete cognitive and existential dissonance between a Jesus intending his role only in a priestly, or prophetic, or spiritual, or eschatological way on the one hand, and his disciples interpreting him as a would-be traditional king on the other? That some dissonance existed is clear, and Mark stresses this point abundantly. But if Jesus was really and fully a man of his time, it seems difficult to maintain that he did not associate his role also with some political goals; in particular, with a "liberation theology" expressed in the words at Emmaus (Lk 24:21), where Jesus is seen as "the one [who was] to redeem Israel", or in the question of Acts 1:6, "So when they had come together, they asked him, 'Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?'" It is also through this "political" message of his, I believe, that his disciples followed him. Granted, to avoid excessive vagueness it is necessary to explain what "political" means here, and I'll spend a few words about this in the coming paragraphs. But first let's ask ourselves, did he really believe in this "political" role, or are we just seeing a psychological device at play, meant to attract and retain disciples? Again, if we argue for his "humanity" in history, it seems difficult to maintain that he just pretended to be what he seemed to be. I believe that he saw and presented himself in the double role of the political liberator and of the "messianic" priest/prophet (in fulfillment of the "two Messiah" expectations I mentioned above).

But now we need to try and clarify in which sense Jesus saw this double role.

From the documents we can read today, it seems clear that with Jesus we are fairly distant from the "power model" of the would-be kings mentioned by Josephus. As I already said, it is perhaps of no small importance that during his wanderings Jesus seems to have avoided Galilean centers of power like Sepphoris and Tiberias, differently from the various Judas, Simon, Athronges, etc. At the same time, there are perhaps hints in the Gospels that the temptation to embrace a fully political agenda was also present in him; consider, for example, what Matthew and Luke say of his struggle with the Devil:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." (Mt 4:8-9 // Lk 4:5-7)
Matthew and Luke announce his victory over this temptation, but perhaps traces of it remain in the cry on the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" - Mk 15:34 // Mt 27:46. At any rate, the fact that in the end he did indeed present serious political problems to the ruling powers (the kings of the secular and religious worlds) is demonstrated fairly well by his execution. And yet, we cannot identify the kingdom announced by Jesus with the violent kingdom typical of the "desperate people" described by Josephus. Jesus' words to Pilate are paradigmatic:
My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world. (John 18:36)
I think that what we see here is in fact also a political agenda, along the lines of the expected deliverance of Israel. Everything turns around the relative meanings of "my kingdom" vs. "this world" (a theme dear to John). I think that with "my kingdom" Jesus did also intend a kingdom in this world, but not of this world. (an excellent synthesis of this message was some time later given by the Epistle to Diognetus in the explanation of the role of the Christians in the world - cf. Diognetus 5-6.)

So, what was this kingdom like? What was the "political" role that Jesus saw for himself? It was the transforming role of the one king over all authorities that were not and are not from God. Transforming, because -apocaliptically- the present rulers were to be overcome by a new eschatological order; but also because -immanently- this overcoming was happening now, with Jesus' message of the reversal of the traditional meanings of law, purity, and holiness, and with the request of the construction of a society - a church - centered around the values of truth and love. Cf. Ben Meyers' The Aims of Jesus: according to Meyers, these aims would be mainly the restoration of Israel, "the messianic task of building on rock, secure against death, the living temple of the last days". I'd just add that this message of eschatological building would not refute or deny a political, wordly building.

In other words, we need to reconcile Reimarus and Schweitzer. With Wright, I'd say that
First-century Jewish apocalyptic, is not the same as “end-of-the-world.” [...] Apocalyptic is the symbolic and richly-charged language of protest, affirming that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven—not in some imagined heavenly realm to be created after the present world has been destroyed. In particular, apocalyptic is the language of revolution: not that YHWH will destroy the world, but that he will act dramatically within it to bring Israel’s long night of suffering to an end, to usher in the new day in which peace and justice will reign. (N.T. Wright, The Historical Jesus and Christian Theology, 1996)
Jesus' messianic task, then, is indeed (Jewish!) apocalyptic; Jesus was an eschatological prophet; but he believed his role to be unique in the restoration of Israel, in the "return from Exile", in the accomplishment of Isaiah 40-55, and, at the same time, in the building of another kingdom, one "on earth as it is in heaven". This kingdom was not like the power kingdoms of the various Herod, Athronges, etc., but it was also not like the power kingdom expected by the Pharisees. Still, it was a kingdom with entirely valid political and eschatological connotations: this, I believe, is the essence of the whole Temple-building message and of the eucharistic commandment of 1 Cor 11:23-26 (cf. also Mk 14:22 // Mt 26:26 // Lk 22:19). This is the essence of Christology, i.e. the building of the eschatological (again, not to be confused with "end-of-the-world") Church. And here is the key, I think, of his "political" message: political does not necessarily mean power-driven, or "revolutionary", or secular; a message, and the derived praxis, can also be fully political when, instead of proposing to replace the current status quo with another one, aims to transform the existing structures showing what their limit is (remember Mt 5:17-18: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished."), and when it contrasts these limits with the freedom of the kingdom of God. His message points at the same time toward the construction of a Civitas Dei and of a Civitas Hominis.

Within this framework, Jesus clearly perceived the uniqueness of his role and his identification with the expected Messiah, even if this perception seems, in NT writings, often to be more implicit than explicit; cf. for example the so-called "Messianic secret" in Mark 8:29, Andrew stating "We have found the Messiah" in John 1:41, Jesus saying before the high priest that he is "the Christ, the Son of the Blessed" in Mark 14:61-62, Jesus' titulus on the Cross, Jesus saying to Thomas "no one comes to the Father except through me" in John 14:6.

But how did Jesus convey his prophetic message? There are a number of major themes in Jesus' announcement: following Meyer, I shall briefly consider here the themes of sonship, temple-building and enthronement, trying to see how they are all related in Jesus' identity. In particular, I shall try and see how Jesus' identity points to the fulfillment of the Davidic prophecy of 2 Sam:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. (2 Sam 7:12-14a)
Now, the theme of the sonship shows us that apparently Jesus, as portrayed by the Gospels, believed he had a key mediating role, although subordinate to the role of God the Father: cf. Mt 17:27 // Lk 10:22, "All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.", Mk 13:32, "But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father", and the already quoted John 14:6, "No one comes to the Father except through me." The association between the Son of God and the Messiah that will deliver Israel is well attested in Jewish literature; for example, in 2 Ezra 7:26-28 it is written:
For indeed the time will come, when the signs that I have foretold to you will come to pass, that the city that now is not seen shall appear, and the land that now is hidden shall be disclosed. Everyone who has been delivered from the evils that I have foretold shall see my wonders. For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years. (2 Ezra 7:26-28, NRSV)
The same association we find among others in 2 Ezra 13:32 ("When these things take place and the signs occur that I showed you before, then my Son will be revealed, whom you saw as a man coming up from the sea."), in 2 Ezra 14:9 ("for you shall be taken up from among humankind, and henceforth you shall live with my Son and with those who are like you, until the times are ended."), in the Testament of Levi 4:2, where Levi is said to become God's Son (and, significantly, in chapter 8 Levi is described as a priestly Messiah endowed with a crown and a scepter - i.e. he is king as well as priest), and in the very interesting Enoch 105 (but this could be an interpolation, since the whole chapter 105 is missing in the Greek fragments of Enoch):
In quei giorni il Signore disse [ai giusti] di chiamare e testimoniare, sulla loro saggezza, ai figli della terra: "Mostrate loro che voi siete la loro guida e le ricompense [che avrete] su tutta la terra, poiché io e mio figlio ci uniremo con loro, per sempre, sulla via della rettitudine durante la loro vita. E la pace sarà con voi! Gioite, figli della rettitudine, per davvero!" (Enoch 105, translated by L. Fusella from the Ge'ez manuscript [Dillmann 1851], in P. Sacchi [a cura di], Apocrifi dell'Antico Testamento, vol. I, 1989)
So, Jesus associates himself with the Son of God (the "beloved son", according to Mk 1:11), Jesus also associates himself with a Messianic role, and this connection between Son of God and Messiah is not really surprising. But what did he actually mean with these associations? What did they trigger into his and his followers' minds? If, as suggested above, Jesus' eschatological message had not to be seen in a strictly "apocalyptic" way; if, further, Jesus' message was intended - by himself and by his followers - in the two senses of political and religious liberation, then we are talking here of the present installation of the messianic kingdom. Temple-building, then, is the process through which this installation takes place.

The political function of the temple is well known. The great Davidic temple was built right in coincidence with the formation of the short-lived national state of Israel. At the same time, the temple was the house of YHWH, and this provided legitimacy to the ruling monarchy. Jesus intends to show how, in him, the temple of God can be rebuilt and installed once and for all.

It is important at this point to see the difference between the two Greek words ναος and ιερον, because it is a difference that carries a theological meaning. Unfortunately, this difference is generally ignored by translations, which render both simply as "temple". ιερον includes the whole Temple complex, and in our context could probably be translated as "Temple mount". ναος, on the other hand, is properly the inner part of the Temple, only accessible to priests (hence, forbidden to Jesus). So, in the episode of the young Jesus found in the temple, the word ιερον is used (Lk 2:46, καὶ ἐγένετο μεθ᾿ ἡμέρας τρεῖς εὗρον αὐτὸν ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ); the same happens when Jesus entered the temple to drive out the money-changers (Mk 11:15, καὶ εἰσελθὼν ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς εἰς τὸ ἱερὸν ἤρξατο ἐκβάλλειν...) and when Jesus taught in the temple (Mk 12:35, Καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ ᾿Ιησοῦς ἔλεγε διδάσκων ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ). But when Jesus wants to speak of the temple that is going to be destroyed and rebuilt, he uses the term ναος: cf. Mk 14:58, ὅτι ἡμεῖς ἠκούσαμεν αὐτοῦ λέγοντος, ὅτι ἐγὼ καταλύσω τὸν ναὸν τοῦτον τὸν χειροποίητον καὶ διὰ τριῶν ἡμερῶν ἄλλον ἀχειροποίητον οἰκοδομήσω (same in John 2:19, ἀπεκρίθη ᾿Ιησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· λύσατε τὸν ναὸν τοῦτον, καὶ ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις ἐγερῶ αὐτόν; John 2:21 then consistently says that "he was speaking of the temple of his body" using ναος, ἐκεῖνος δὲ ἔλεγε περὶ τοῦ ναοῦ τοῦ σώματος αὐτοῦ), and it is the curtain of this inner temple that was torn in two at his death, Mk 15:38, Καὶ τὸ καταπέτασμα τοῦ ναοῦ ἐσχίσθη εἰς δύο ἀπὸ ἄνωθεν ἕως κάτω (ditto in the parallel passages Mt 27:51 and Lk 23:45; interestingly, Jerome mentions twice in his writings that the lost Gospel of the Hebrews has a different account, a more radical one I would say: "Nel vangelo scritto in lettere ebraiche leggiamo che non è il velo del tempio che s'è stracciato, ma che fu: 'l'architrave del tempio a cadere, ch'era di una grandezza straordinaria'", Jerome, Epist. 120, 8, ad Hedyb; similarly in Jerome, In Math., 27,51 - in L. Moraldi [a cura di], Apocrifi del Nuovo Testamento, 1991). Temple-building is therefore properly something that should be seen as the most sacred activity, to be performed by the high priest only (like, in the building of the Herodian temple, only priests were used for work in the sacred areas - in the ναος). Jesus intends this high priest to be himself.

The high priest, Jesus, is going to build the definitive temple, then. But given his double role of priestly and Davidic Messiah, this implies the necessity of proper enthronement. Eschatological enthronement is traditionally linked to the motif of ascent into heaven like, for example, in Enoch 6-36 (the "Book of the Watchers"), or in the well-known Dan 7:13-14:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Dan 7:13-14)
An explicit reference to this enthronement passage can be found in Mark 14:61-62:
But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" And Jesus said, "I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven." (Mark 14:61-62)
Jesus, therefore, is making here an explicit reference to his own enthronement, and in some way this enthronement is connected to his future ascent into heaven; he identifies himself as the Davidic and the priestly Messiah; he is, on the one hand, the Son of God, to which a kingdom has already been given by the Father, cf. Lk 22:28-30, "You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel."; on the other hand, he is the Son of Man, who will be enthroned, cf. Mt 19:28 (parallel to the Lukan passage above), "Jesus said to them, 'Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.'"

There are various theories on the origin and meaning of this Son of Man title, and it is difficult or maybe even impossible to understand to what extent the texts referring to it are reflecting a developed theological message, rather than Jesus' own understanding of his role. But at least we can say that the role that Jesus seems to play and understand is very often one that is loaded with a double meaning. The Son of Man title is sometimes applied to the future, as in Mk 14:62 above, in Mk 13:26, "And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory" quoting again Dan 7, and in Mk 8:38, "For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels". Note in this last passage an explicit ambiguity between "Son of Man" and "Son of God". But sometimes "Son of Man" is applied to the earthly Jesus, who apparently already reigns as Lord, as in Mk 2:9-11, "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your bed and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins--he said to the paralytic-- I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home", and in Mk 2:28, "So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath."

Still, the ambiguity between the two functions, present and future, of the Son of Man/Son of God is not simply "left there". It is indeed "bridged" (G. Nickelsburg, Son of Man, ABD) by the role of the suffering and exhalted Jesus, as in Mk 8:31, "And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again", in Mk 10:33:34, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise", and especially in Mk 10:45, "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." In these passages the OT reference is perhaps the Suffering Servant of Is 52-53. The ambiguity between present and future is bridged in the climax of the mission of the earthly Jesus, his death - to be followed by his vindication, the resurrection.

The final question, then. Did Jesus understand that his mission was to die on the cross, and to die for a specific reason? What was this reason?

Mk 10:45 is indeed one of the very few places of the NT where Jesus is portrayed to give an explicit meaning to his death. That the death of Jesus was intended by the early Church as atonement for sins seems clear, looking at early texts like 1 Cor 15:3: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures", where Paul refers to an already existing understanding of the death of Christ as sacrifice. Paul has several other references to the sacrifice of Christ, cf. for example 1 Cor 5:7 ("... Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed") and Rom 3:25 ([Christ,] "whom God put forward as a propitiation [ἱλαστήριον] by his blood, to be received by faith"). But to what extent we can trace this understanding of atonement back to Jesus himself is not obvious, and Mark 10:45b is sometimes treated as a post-Easter gloss.

First of all, I would say that the emphasis of Pauline theology on the diad sin/sacrifice (I said Pauline, but I should also mention e.g. 1 Pet 2:24, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.", or the Epistle to the Hebrews) does not seem very explicit in the Gospels.

But there are two points I'd also like to make: first, it is a fact that very early in the life of the Church we see an interpretation of the death of Christ that centers around the meaning of sacrificial offering. This fact is then consistently confirmed in later writers. Second, we should always be very careful in evaluating the logia of Jesus as written in the Gospels, and avoid both literalism (to believe we are necessarily dealing with the ipsissima verba) and exclusivism (to believe that the passages found in the extant sources are representative of the fullness of Jesus' message) - this is of course true for all I have written so far as well. Perhaps the Gospel genre, or simply the Gospel writers, were just not so interested in recording Jesus' words about the meaning of the atonement, besides what I already mentioned. This could be due to the fact that in the narrative more emphasis had simply to be put into acts, because the narrative genre itself dictated that from acts (including life, praxis, death, and resurrection) theological meaning could be excerpted, and not the other way around. But we can and should also try and see a bigger picture, even in the narrative. What the Gospels propose are accounts of the life of Jesus that consciously (from Jesus' point of view!) move toward Jerusalem, at a specific time (Passover), with specific characteristics. Passover obviously suggests the presence of God during the sacrifice of reconciliation. As for characteristics, a most important part of the narrative is Jesus' trial. I think that Jesus' behavior during the trial can hardly be understood unless one thinks that he believed that his role was indeed to die, to die on the cross, and to be raised. But if we believe that he figured himself, as stated above, to be Son, Priest, Messiah, Temple-builder, then he might well have connected these points with his future death and resurrection. As a matter of fact, all these points taken together only form a partial picture, that can be completed in one of two ways: either with an apocalyptic, truly "end-of-the-world" focus, or with an eschatological and ecclesiological twist. The considerations I reported above make me believe that the second hypothesis cannot be easily dismissed. Sonship, priesthood, messianism, temple-building (through his body - remember the Eucharistic commandment, pointing to the future of his Church) are then to be linked to his death and resurrection, in the "realized eschatology" of a kingdom of God "on earth, as it is in heaven." In other words, Jesus might have perfectly understood his destiny of sacrifice on earth as the necessary step for the fulfillment of his role, to cause the definitive covenant, reconciliation, and victory over "sinful" structures, in the perspective of the construction of an eschatological, holy community of faithfuls. This, perhaps, was his final exegesis of the prophecy I mentioned above:
He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. (2 Sam 7:13-14a)

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