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A New Take on Jesus’ Cry from the Cross

August 20, 2010

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Hard to find a more memorable line from the Gospels, surely.  Sermons galore have fixed on the saying, and whole theologies built upon it.  Typically, it’s read as “Jesus’ cry of despair” pure and simple.  Often, today’s Gospel of Mark scholars love it as confirmation of GMark as a dark, brooding, ambiguous text that promotes failure, weakness, death . . . real “film noir” stuff.   Preachers often cite the statement to contend that in Jesus’ death “God turned his back on Jesus,” making for real drama.  Theologians often probe the saying as suggesting some kind of intra-Trinity drama, a kind of separation of Father and Son in Jesus’ death, etc.  Heady stuff!

Occasionally, scholars have noted that the cry is also a quotation of Psalm 22:1, and have wondered if this makes a difference, especially as Psalm 22 actually combines a “righteous sufferer” theme with a rather upbeat and confident thrust and ending.  So, might these words on Jesus’ lips actually be intended to have him die citing scripture, and citing a passage that expresses confidence that God will not in fact leave the sufferer forsaken, but will vindicate him, enabling him to “procalim your name to my brothers” (Psa 22:22), so that “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD” (22.27)?  I.e., is this a cry of despair or does it show Jesus dying as a devout Jew, placing his confidence in God’s final vindication?

Well, one of my former PhD students, Holly Carey, took on this question and produced an excellent thesis addressing it and a number of inter-related issues.  It’s been published, and I hope will acquire the readership that it deserves:

Holly Carey, Jesus’ Cry From the Cross: Towards a First-Century Understanding of the Intertextual Relationship Between Psalm 22 and the Narrative of Mark’s Gospel, LNTS, no. 398 (London: T&T Clark, 2009).

Holly’s study contends (persuasively in my view) that the citation of Psa 22:1 in the Markan crucifixion account is much richer and rounded than has been recognized.  Without denying at all the emphasis on redemptive suffering in GMark, she shows that the text also expresses a positive and confident theme of divine vindication . . . of Jesus and of the intended readers.  She fully engages critical scholarship, and produces a nuanced and carefully reasoned case that I believe must be regarded as the starting point for any future discussion of this classic text.

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  1. cynic librarian permalink

    Strange to think that it might take this much scholarship to see something so simple. I have always read it as a cry of extreme anguish, even despair – Jesus’ last sign of identification with the lost and dispossessed of the earth. … Any indication in the published work about why this is said in Aramaic?

    • Well, yes, a number of others would read the verse this way. But the prior question is whether that’s what the author intended. And Carey gives reasons to think that it’s just a good bit more interesting than this.
      That the saying appears in transliterated Aramaic (GMark) or Hebrew (GMatthew) as well as Greek is a very interesting datum. Each choice by the Evangelists reflects some intended nuance, to my mind. Mark’s Aramaic certainly has the effect of adding a strong dash of verisimilitude to the scene (rather like having foreign characters in American movies speak in their characters’ language with sub-titles).

  2. David Reimer permalink

    There was some synergy with one of “mine”, too: Jesurathnam’s 2006 PhD on a “Contextual reading of Psalm 22 with special reference to Indian Christian Dalit Interpretations”, not (as yet) published so far as I know. Jesu’s thesis is a sort of indigenous “liberation theology” for Dalits, with Psalm 22 as the fundamental text, rather than the exodus motif as in the more famous South American expression. He certainly took into account the Gospel connections as well.

  3. John Stackhouse permalink

    I’ve been teaching along those lines for years in Systematic Theology, Larry. Not to take anything away from your student’s work, of course: I’m sure she covers bases that haven’t even occurred to me to cover, and I’ll look it up with interest. But from a theological point of view, as well as an exegetical one, it makes far more sense to imagine Jesus intending his listeners to get the WHOLE Psalm (as in someone saying, “To be or not to be…”), and the Evangelist doing the same, especially as the implication of this quotation is NOT that the Father is abandoning the Son in any way that calls the unity of the triune God into question nor the partnership of all three members of the Godhead in the Atonement.

    In fact, it seems to me better to say either that Jesus is experiencing, as part of his suffering servant role, a temporary abandonment (thus interpreting the Incarnation along kenotic lines) that isn’t actually the case OR that he isn’t experiencing abandonment at all, but looks like he is (per Is 53 as well as Ps 22) and is in fact NOT being abandoned but is instead God’s suffering servant and Messiah.

    Thanks again for encouraging this scholarship.

    • Steven Carr permalink

      ‘ it makes far more sense to imagine Jesus intending his listeners to get the WHOLE Psalm (as in someone saying, “To be or not to be…”), ‘

      I can’t imagine a crucified person doing this.

      Do people quote Shakespeare while they are gasping for breath , in agony?

      And did people carefully listen to what crucified people were saying, in case they started quoting the first line of a Psalm?

      The whole thing is a literary creation.

      • In the first instance, GMark gives us access to this representation of Jesus. So, the text tells us more directly what the author was doing, not primarily the psychology of Jesus. The question in reading the text, thus, is not would or would not Jesus have quoted Psa 22, but what did the author intend by including this.

        It’s not so difficult, however, to imagine a devout Jew dying with scripture on his lips, and a scripture that is expressive of his own attitude and hope. . . in this case for vindication. You have to adjust to a setting in which people memorized and lived out of scriptures.

  4. David Hawley permalink

    Read the psalm with that in mind. Jesus then, as he is the perfect obedient Jew, is also the representative righteous sufferer who is finally vindicated by God. And maybe this is the sense of the passages which speak of christians sharing his suffering.

    • However one reads the “cry” in Mark, there are good reasons for thinking that the author intended readers to identify themselves with Jesus. If, as Holly argues, the “cry” is part of a larger emphasis on Jesus as suffering and vindicated by God, this would indeed be very meaningful and inspiring to early readers who are warned in GMark that they too should be prepared to undergo suffering for Jesus’ sake.

  5. Steven Carr permalink

    A quick glance at the book on Amazon opened my eyes to how much the idea of a ‘Righteous Sufferer’ was ‘in the air’ in first century Judaism,

    I had no idea!

  6. Thanks for the post, Larry. We were delighted to have the book on the LNTS. As it happens, we are publishing another volume on Psalm 22 in the Gospels next year, written by Mark Hoffman and based on a Yale PhD supervised by Meeks.

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