November 13, 2007

Scot McKnight, Jesus and His Death

In Jesus and His Death, Scot McKnight undertakes a historical look at how Jesus understood his own death. He begins with a study of the "historiography" of Jesus studies, looking at the historical methods currently in use, often in the background, in studies about Jesus and the New Testament, broadly categorizing them as modernist or postmodernist in orientation. After surveying this turf, he goes on to investigate how Jesus' death has been understood in modern studies of Jesus, largely concluding that in many cases Jesus' death is a neglected or at least under-emphasized facet of his life. (Which, this seems odd considering it's prominence in Paul's theology; though on the other had that might partly explain it, considering the orientation of many of the Jesus studies these days.) He then goes on in chapter three to "reclaim" Jesus death as an important focus of study.

Part two of his book is an initial investigation into the role Jesus' death played in h is life. He begins by looking at the question of whether Jesus expected a premature death, concluding minimally that after John the baptizer's death, it couldn't have been far from Jesus mind; that is, his own death was a possibility. But he begins building from that point by moving on to consider whether Jesus considered it more than mere possibility, but also a probability; was it something he expected? To investigate this question, McKnight surveys many strands of the Gospel narratives, making the argument that though Jesus didn't want to die, he came to see it as a likely outcome of his ministry, and that he expressed this as having a "temporary presence" with his disciples, and further, that he saw his likely death as part of the Final Ordeal, infusing it with eschatological significance, even to the point of seeing his death as representative for his followers.

Part three of McKnight's study focuses more specifically on how Jesus understood his own death as atoning, and specifically if he understood it as a ransom. This focuses the discussion on Mark 10:45, the saying about Jesus' death being a ransom for many. In this investigation he looks at allusions to Isaiah, the context of the saying, and many other factors in evaluating the authenticity of the saying. And the verdict isn't clear. The possibility that it is a later addition is strong. So this leads McKnight to investigate the remainder of the Jesus tradition to see if the saying gains support from other places as something Jesus would have said. This includes looking at how Jesus understood his own role (was it like Isaiah's servant, a role that would point toward "ransom" language or more like a son of man or some other mold?), concluding that servant imagery didn't play a prominent role in Jesus' self-understanding, but that son-of-man imagery was prominent. His investigation continues, with studies of other "scripture prophets" to whom Jesus can be compared, and with the passion predictions. Then, in part four, he undertakes an in-depth study of the last supper traditions, to shed some light on how Jesus understood his life and death.

Ultimately, McKnight concludes that the ransom saying in Mark 10:45 is likely a Markan gloss, and that Mark indeed understood Jesus' death as a ransom for many, paying the price to liberate Jesus' followers from a hostile power. So what of Jesus and his death? His first emphasis is that "Jesus' mission is more than a 'mission to die'" (336). Though it indeed turned out to also be that. Jesus called on God to avoid his upcoming death, but ultimately saw it as his own role in God's providence. So what of atonement? Jesus saw his death as a representative death, having value for his followers, and probably even as vicarious, taking the place of others. This is intimately caught up with the fact that his death was part of the "Final Ordeal," the inbreaking of God's kingdom into the present and the fulfillment of God's plans for the world.

But more must be said. The early church didn't confine it's reflection of Jesus' death to these themes, but plumbed the depths of Scripture and reflected on Jesus' life and death to come up with deep, rich, and varied expressions of the significance of Jesus death. And McKnight finishes up his book surveying these developments. In the end, he points beyond the "how" of atonement to the "whereunto": "the design of the atonement," he writes, "is to create a community, an ecclesia, a koinonia, a zoe, a new creation" (371). That is where he sees the center of the New Testament's message about Jesus and his death, a message that goes back to Jesus himself. Jesus death "would protect them, liberate them, and usher them into the kingdom of God" (372). That's a pretty robust place to start in reflecting on the atonement.

I still have some digesting to do of this one. It is a great book, and quite an enjoyable read for being a careful academic study. He does a very good job of making the reader aware of the large themes in the New Testament, while also zeroing in on important passages. It was a little disconcerting, though, to have so many traditional sayings of Jesus dismantled and dismissed, at least as they go back to Jesus. His judgment at times seemed a bit tentative when it came to authenticating sayings, but that may also give the book its value, as it provides a very strong foundation upon which to build an understanding of Jesus' death: Jesus thought of his death in these ways, at least. McKnight is a gracious scholar with a passion for teaching, and I deeply appreciated this book, though it has also challenged my thinking, but also driven me to think more deeply about many important issues. With so many debates ranging today about atonement theories and atonement thinking, this book provides an important voice in the larger discussion.

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