The Cross As Biographical Detail

Electric Chair Jewelry, by Made By Mammals I was rereading this previous post about what Paul knew of Jesus’s life. And it occurred to me, I’d missed a significant feature of Paul’s writing. Paul consistently and insistently makes clear that Jesus was crucified.

We’re used to reading ‘cross’ and ‘crucifixion’ symbolically, as abstract ideas, and Paul uses it that way too. But would that have been its rhetorical impact on the early Jesus movement? I doubt it. It would have been as visceral as ‘lethal injection’ or ‘electric chair’, and as odd and gruesome too. But I also think that such a specific reference to the method of execution should be seen as biographical too. Jesus didn’t just die – he was electrocuted to death on an electric chair.

Put like that, it is harder to read as an abstract feature of a mythological Jesus. I find it very hard to read Paul as believing in an entirely celestial Jesus. It sounds biographical.

So I decided to put this change of words into the relevant NT verses (tr. based on NRSV):

1 Cor 1:17,18 — For Christ did not send me to baptise but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the Electric Chair of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the Electric Chair is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Cor 1:24 — But we proclaim Christ Electrocuted, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

1 Cor 2:2 — For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him Electrocuted.

1 Cor 2:8 — None of the rulers of this age understood this: for if they had, they would not have put the Lord of Glory in the Electric Chair.

Gal 3:1 — You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as executed by Electric Chair.

Gal 5:11 — Why am I still being persecuted, if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case, the offense of the Electric Chair has been removed.

Gal 6:12,14 — It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the Electric Chair of Christ. May I never boast of anything except the Electric Chair of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been electrocuted to me, and I to the world.

Phil 2:6-8 — [Christ Jesus] who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death in an Electric Chair.

Phil 3:18 — For many live as enemies of the Electric Chair of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears.

Is it helpful to put these passages in these terms? Do you agree that they are too specific to be seen as anything other than biographical: claims about an earthly death of an earthly man?

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9 responses to “The Cross As Biographical Detail

  1. I’m a little baffled here. Are you wondering whether mentions of crucifixion are meant, whether true or not, to accurately describe a historical event? Your alternative, I think, is that it is a kind of metaphorical description in which case, if I understand correctly, you’d expect more variations on the death story. Is that right?

    You’re not, I think, trying to make a statement about the actual historical accuracy, are you? Just the intention of a writer to portray history accurately.

  2. Ian

    Orange, yes, exactly.

    I’m kind of arguing with voices off. It has often been pointed out that Paul says almost nothing about Jesus the man, and maybe therefore that Paul didn’t think of Jesus as a man, but as a celestial being. Certainly for those of us who think Paul did understand Jesus as being a recent historical figure, it is a feature that needs explanation.

    The idea on the crucifixion is that Paul sees this as a celestial event, which is required based on the prophecy of scripture. Rather than a historic event.

    I’ve not thought about it in detail, but the specificity does seem to suggest it was intended as biographical (i.e. an event in the life of an actual figure), then used as a metaphor for personal struggle.

    Would I expect more variation? I don’t know, good question, perhaps not. But if the execution by Electric Chair was understood by me and everyone around me as taking place in a heavenly realm, I would maybe expect it to be qualified, at least some of the time. I’m struggling to be very specific about what I expect, so I guess I’m not being very critical.

    As for whether it was historically accurate, good distinction. Paul says so little that ‘historically accurate’ would just mean there was a crucifixion, I think (and I tend to the view there was). There is no empty tomb narrative in Paul, no details of the crucifixion or trial or such. I think by the time the gospels are written, the stories weaved around the historical crucifixion have lost any claim to accuracy though. I *suspect* bits of the accounts might be accurate in broad strokes, but if so they are minor details embedded in a big mythic structure.

  3. I wonder what the other execution methods of that period were. Did the Romans sanction quartering or drowning? Did the Jews still stone people to death as some Muslims do today?
    To readers back in Paul’s time think if Paul has said Jesus was stoned to death or Jesus was taken to the sea and drowned or walked to a field and quartered by asses? Would these killing methods have had different allusions to readers that a fiction writer could have capitalized on?

    You ask a very interesting question. But maybe my question is something mythologists would worry about too.

    Personally, with enough churching in the power of the electric chair, or the injection needle, I think (unlike you), that perhaps the phrasing in the verses you changed could indeed start to resonate with the reader much like “cross” did to the original readers. Or maybe the crosses simple structure invites tons of imagery.

    I am not sure your argument works against mythicist interpretations for those reasons. At first, I did. But as I read these versions 3-4 times, and started focusing on the surprise death as the whole point and then filling the previously normal method of execution as sacred since it happened to my guru, I could envision it happening.

    Since Paul offers no other details of the crucifixion, maybe he is just (bound by his times) using it as synonymous with “killed” or “executed”. If he could have had Jesus stabbed on a sacrificial alter and burned to perfume Yahweh’s nostrils, he probably would have, but that might have been too much historical fiction in the story for readers to willingly suspend their belief. I’ve heard it said that a workable myth should only have a few details stretched.

    BTW: Four years ago I did a post on the death mechanism of Jesus. You may enjoy the photoshopped image I made there.

  4. ooops, forgot to follow

  5. Ian

    Thanks for all the comments. I agree that it doesn’t, on its own, hold a huge amount of weight. But it is a biographical detail in a way that ‘died’ would not be.

    And I agree – with enough churching, this could absolutely 100% become figurative. Paul does use it figuratively. He talks about us being crucified with Christ, for example. My point was definitely not that this could not become symbolic, but just that it is quite specific. It is harder to read it as an entirely abstract concept, I think.

    The mythicist argument is that Paul was well aware that Jesus was totally a celestial figure with no earthly life. And the lack of Paul’s comments about the life or teaching of Jesus is used as evidence. I’m just making the point that an entirely celestial crucifixion, without qualification that it was celestial, seems odd. I find it hard to believe you’d say that, without qualification, if you didn’t want your readers to assume there was actually a crucifixion at some point, involving a cross and a criminal. So you end up with the implication that Paul knew Jesus was celestial, but didn’t want to make that clear. Which undermines the point that Paul’s writing is clearly about an entirely celestial Jesus. Lots of cake being had and eaten, as far as I can see.

    Yes, there were plenty of methods of execution around.

  6. (1) There are several mythicist arguments, aren’t there? Isn’t only one version that Jesus was viewed as a celestial being?

    (2) In celestial stories, aren’t gods exiled, killed, eaten and all sorts of things. Why wouldn’t crucified be allowed? Perhaps I am missing something. So, if it happened in the celestial realm, you’d be less inclined to give details because geographic points of references (aside from big rivers or mountains, maybe) aren’t felt as necessary — just saying it happened is enough.

    (3) But I agree, if Jesus was celestial, and Paul never talks about it, that seems odd. But I don’t think the crucifix thing helps illustrate that.

    (did you like my graphic?)

  7. Ian

    The cluster of arguments from silence about Jesus’s earthly life, I meant. Yes, there are plenty of variations.

    There’s a difference between celestial and mythological. There are battles, certainly, but characteristically political execution? Dunno, not that I know (which isn’t saying much).

    I liked the graphic, yes. Thanks.

  8. Mark Erickson

    No and no. “It sounds biographical” isn’t even an argument.

  9. Ian

    “No and no. “It sounds biographical” isn’t even an argument.” – In which case, I doubt there are any arguments. “It sounds celestial”, or “it doesn’t seem biographical” wouldn’t be arguments either! Unfortunately, quantitative arguments are pretty much impossible on such stuff.

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