By Zia H Shah
Jews were not expecting a suffering Messiah or one who will die on a cross, as Deuteronomy said, “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree:, His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) Even the Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged that Jews were not expecting a suffering Messiah in his recent book about Jesus of Nazareth.
For a theological understanding of the empty tomb, a passage from Saint Peter’s Pentecost sermon strikes me as important, when Peter for the first time openly proclaims Jesus’ Resurrection to the assembled crowds. He communicates it, not in his own words, but by quoting Psalm 16:8-10 as follows: ‘… my flesh will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life’ (Acts 2:26-28). Peter quotes the psalm text using the version found in the Greek Bible (whereas Peter did not know Greek at that time, he was an unlearned person, at least until then, who spoke Aramaic and may have known some Hebrew). The Hebrew text is slightly different: ‘You do not give me up to Sheol, or let your godly one see the Pit. You show me the path of life’ (Ps 16:10-11). In the Hebrew version the psalmist speaks in the certainty that God will protect him, even in the threatening situation in which he evidently finds himself, that God will shield him from death and that he may dwell securely: he will not see the grave. (The Hebrew text does not serve the purpose of Pope). The version Peter quotes is different: here the psalmist is confident that he will not remain in the underworld, that he will not see corruption.Peter takes it for granted that it was David who originally prayed this psalm, and he goes on to state that this hope was not fulfilled in David: ‘He both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day’ (Acts 2:29). The tomb containing his corpse is the proof of his not having risen. Yet the psalm text is still true: it applies to the definitive David. Indeed, Jesus is revealed here as the true David, precisely because in him this promise is fulfilled: ‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’ We need not go into the question here of whether this address really goes back to Peter and, if not, who else may have redacted it and precisely when and where it originated. Whatever the answer may be, we are dealing here with a primitive form of Resurrection proclamation, whose high authority in the early Church is clear from the fact that it was attributed to Saint Peter himself and was regarded as the original proclamation of the Resurrection.
Dying on the cross was common place in the Roman Empire in Jesus’ time. We realize that survival and not dying on the cross would have been a miracle, when we appreciate crucifixion in the context of its time, the first century of the common era in the Roman Empire. Prof. Martin Hengel became Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at the University of Tübingen, in 1992. Hengel specialized in the early period of Rabbinic Judaism including early Christianity and the origins of Christianity, he has captured the meaning of crucifixion in the antiquity for us very eloquently:
CRUCIFIXION AS A PENALTY was remarkably widespread in antiquity. It appears in various forms among numerous peoples of the ancient world, even among the Greeks. . . . [It] was and remained a political and military punishment. While among the Persians and the Carthaginians it was imposed primarily on high officials and commanders, as on rebels, among the Romans it was inflicted above all on the lower classes, i.e., slaves, violent criminals, and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces, not least in Judaea. The chief reason for its use was its allegedly supreme efficacy as a deterrent; it was, of course, carried out publicly. . . . It was usually associated with other forms of torture, including at least flogging. . . . By the public display of a naked victim at a prominent place-at a crossroads, in the theatre, on high ground, at the place of his crime-crucifixion also represented his uttermost humiliation, which had a numinous dimension to it. With Deuteronomy 21:23 in the background, the Jew in particular was very aware of this. . . . Crucifixion was aggravated further by the fact that quite often its victims were never buried. It was a stereotyped picture that the crucified victim served as food for wild beasts and birds of prey. In this way his humiliation was made complete. What it meant for a man in antiquity to be refused burial, and the dishonour which went with it, can hardly be appreciated by modern man.
- 1. Pope Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection. Ignatius Press, 2011. Page 245.
- 2. Pope Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection. Ignatius Press, 2011. Page 255-256.
- 3. Matthew 27:45-46.
- 4. Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.