JESUS THE DEAD MESSIAH
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
Peter must have been deeply touched by Paul’s insatiable curiosity about Jesus. It is likely that Paul’s detailed inquiries brought to the surface of his mind incidents and impressions that he had forgotten. To this extent they delighted in a common quest. There was one important issue, however, on which they might have differed.
The stress that Paul laid on the crucifixion of Jesus set him apart from other preachers among the first Christians. The others mentioned the death of Jesus, and underlined its sacrificial dimension by saying that ‘he died for our sins’. They did not spell out exactly how it had happened. This attitude is perfectly understandable. It was difficult enough to preach a Saviour who had died without apparently achieving anything. It was immensely more difficult to preach a Saviour who had been executed as low class criminal.
Why, then, did Paul make the crucifixion of Jesus, of which he had heard as a Pharisee, the centerpiece of his preaching, when none of his contemporaries did? Just as Paul the Pharisee had seen to the heart of the fundamental opposition between Christianity and Judaism, while Christians did not, so too here Paul’s penetrating intelligence detected a problem that others did not perceive. If Jesus was the Messiah, he should not have died!
All Jews accepted that the Messiah would be the purifying leader of a holy people. He could not possibly be a sinner. His absolute righteousness was taken completely for granted. The Jewish Scriptures, however, taught that death was punishment for sin. It was not integral to human nature. The Book of Wisdom can serve as the representative of a series of texts reaching back to Genesis and forward to the second century AD, “God created humanity in a state of incorruptibility. In the image of his own eternity he made it. But through the devil’s envy death entered the world” (2: 23-24). If the Messiah was not a sinner, then death had no claim on him.
While Jewish scholars, such as Paul, would have been conscious of the force of this argument, the vast majority of Jews would have associated the Messiah with the last great victory of good over evil. The advent of the Messiah was seen as the glorious climax to history beyond which no one thought to venture. Inevitably the Messiah was thought of in terms of eternity. Why should he die?
Paul’s dilemma should now be clear. He recognized Jesus as the Messiah, but he also knew that Jesus had died. Both points were certain. The absolute streak in Paul’s character meant that he could not live with this contradiction. There had to be a resolution, but not by the calculated ambiguity of compartmentalization, nor by the abandonment one or other fact.
Eventually Paul realized that only one solution was possible. If someone on whom death had no claim actually died, then that person must have chosen to die. All other human beings can only accept death, It will take them whether they like it or not. For Paul, Jesus did not suffer that restriction. His death was the result of a personal decision. Thus Paul repeatedly emphasizes that his death was self-sacrifice.
Once Paul had accepted that the death of Jesus was an act of self-sacrifice, a dead sinless Messiah ceased to be a problem. Its modality then became the central issue: why did Jesus choose the most horrible way to die, the agonizing suffering of crucifixion? It goes without saying that in posing such a question Paul was working backwards. Jesus did not have to die. But if he did in fact die, and in this particular way, then he must have chosen that form of death. Why?
The standard teaching that Paul inherited insisted that the death of Jesus had benefited humanity. Paul turned this the other way round. Jesus, he believed, intended his death to bring good to others. In Paul’s eyes such altruism could only be explained as an act of love. “He loved me, that is he gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
This insight so overwhelmed Paul that henceforward he could not mention the death of Jesus without wanting others to appreciate the extraordinary depth and power of the love it revealed. In practice this meant forcing his hearers and readers to confront the ugly reality of the crucifixion. Hence his vow, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2: 2).
For Paul Jesus’ death became the key to the meaning of his life. It revealed to Paul that what makes a person genuinely human is the self-sacrificing love shown by Christ. This, above all, is what he wanted his readers to take to heart.
Paul’s intense forthright reflection on the historical Jesus with Peter in Jerusalem must have filled him with fervour to tell the story of this extraordinary man. We should have expected Paul to rush into an intense missionary campaign. If so, it took place in Syria and Cilicia, but it has left no trace, and Paul effectively disappears for three years. We pick up his story again around AD 40 when Barnabas recruited him to work in Antioch-on-the-Orontes.
The infant church there had suffered persecution. The mother church in Jerusalem responded by sending a Jewish Cypriot convert called Joseph, to stabilize the demoralized community. His nickname Barnabas (meaning ‘son of consolation’) might explain why he was chosen for the task, or reflect the memory of what he achieved at Antioch.
His bringing Paul to Antioch was a stroke of genius. Paul’s conversion demonstrated that the power of God could turn a persecutor of the church into one of its most fervent members. In him grace was not a theory but a reality. God did work miracles. There was hope for the future. Antioch was to be Paul’s home base for the next decade.
Antioch was one of the most magnificent cities in the Roman empire. Two earthquakes during Paul’s time there did little to tarnish its immense dignity. No doubt Paul was impressed by its striking buildings and beautiful boulevards, but what he really liked was the tolerant nature of the Christian community. It was a roughly equal mixture of Jewish and pagan converts, and they had worked out a delicate compromise that permitted the two groups to eat together. In the ancient world a shared meal was the most solemn affirmation of unity.
Paul recognized the effort that pagan converts made to love their Jewish brethren. At the same time he believed that the Jewish dietary laws no longer had any salvific value. Once Jesus was recognized as the Messiah there was no further place for the Law. However, given the delicate balance in the community, Paul was not prepared to insist on principle. The dietary laws had been transformed in his mind into merely ethnic customs, and Jewish converts should continue to behave as usual.
After a year, when the community had settled down, Antioch commissioned Barnabas and Paul as missionaries. According to Luke, they went first to Cyprus and then into the heart of modern Turkey. I think it more likely that their plan was to establish bridgehead churches in central Turkey, which would then act as a staging point for a mission to the densely populated western coast.
To reach the high plateau of central Turkey the missionaries had to get through the Taurus Mountains (7000 ft). There was only one pass, the Cilician Gates, which at its narrowest point was only some 60 feet wide, equally divided between the Roman road notched into the cliff and the river. This pass would have been blocked by snow for most of the winter. Travel was really practicable only between late April and September.
Once out into the windswept high country of Anatolia the missionaries tramped along the south side of the great plain of Lycaonia, establishing churches in Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium (modern Konya). Their westernmost foundation was Antioch-in-Pisidia (near modern Yalvaç).
The whole journey from Antioch-on-the-Orontes was roughly 515 miles. If Barnabas and Paul averaged 20 miles per day it would have taken them just over three weeks. They could have been home in two months. This purely theoretical figure, however, makes no allowance for illness, excessive heat, or accidents. Also we must not forget the need to work to pay one’s way or to wait for a caravan when the road was infested with bandits or wolves. Nor do we know how long they spent in each town or village. I would estimate that this mission took between two and four years.
Barnabas was the leader of this expedition. Paul was merely his assistant. Presumably Barnabas carried the ongoing responsibility for these communities. This at least would explain why Paul showed no further interest in any of these churches. Certainly he never wrote to them. He did visit them later but just because they happened to be on his route to the west. On that occasion in Lystra Paul was joined by Timothy, who was to become his closest friend and collaborator. He served as Paul’s eyes and ears on several delicate diplomatic missions.
The Icons are from the Dominican Monastery, Siena, Drogheda