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Jesus by Martin Dibelius

Martin Dibelius occupied the chair of New Testament at the University of Heidelberg for thirty two years.  He wrote extensively, and many of his works have been translated into English.  In 1937 he visited the United States, delivering the Shaffer Lectures at Yale University. Jesus was translated by Charles B. Hedrick, teacher of New Testament at Berkeley Divinity School, and Frederick C. Grant (who completed the translation after Dr. Hedrick’s death).  Dr. Grant was Edwin Robinson Professor of Biblical Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York.  Published in 1949 by Westminster Press, Philadelphia.  This book was prepared for Religion Online by Richard and Sue Kendall.

Chapter IX: The Opposing Force

Jesus’ message kept within the frame of Judaism. And yet out of this Judaism grew for him the hostility that brought about his death. On the other hand, in this sentence of death Judaism passed decisive judgment upon itself. For it was not the war with the Romans that left the Jews permanently homeless, but the hostility of the Christians. Such a fateful eflect had the opposition between Jesus and the Jews. What did it consist of?

The center of Jesus’ message, the announcement of the Kingdom of God, could readily be combined with the Jew­ish hope. The radicalism of this announcement, however, the exclusive insistence that “ one thing is necessary,” de­valued the claim of all other duties, including the ritual, the legal, and the nationalistic. And Jesus gave expression to this devaluation in his own life: he broke the Sabbath when he felt that God bade him act; he excused his disciples (at least) from the custom of fasting; and the burning national question whether one had really to pay the poli tax to the foreign power of occupation (in Judea and Samaria) he an­swered in the affirmative, but he viewed it as a secular con­cern and pointed his questioners to the essential duty, “Give to God what belongs to him.” That question had nothing to do with God’s Kingdom. In the same w~y he must have put aside numberless other questions that were viewed as most important by the teachers of his people. And it is precisely because they are laying these burdens on the people and are silent about the essential things, because they “ strain out gnats and swallow camels,” that he attacks them. “ Woe to you Pharisees! You shut up God’s Kingdom against men! You do not enter in yourselves, and you keep out those who want to go in “ (Matt. 23:13).

A kind of preaching that is concerned so exclusively with what is coming in the future must stand in sharpest contrast to a system that is built on a give-and-take between God and men in the present. To be sure, the strictest representatives of Jewish piety, the Pharisees, also “ believed “ in the com­ing Messiah and his Kingdom, but they were not eager for him, for they were satisfied with the present. They believed themselves to be square with God, as the Pharisee voices it in the parable (Luke i8:ii). The devaluation of those duties through the principle that “one thing is necessary” must have appeared to them as threatening to undermine and ruin the whole system of piety. Here at the outset there was no mutual understanding.

There was something else besides. Anyone in Judaism who hoped for the coming of the Messiah thought in that con­nection of a renewal of the nation’s splendor; not without good reason was Jesus hailed on his entry with the cry, “Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our father, David!” (Mark 11:10). But Jesus knows otherwise about the fate of this nation. It is like the servant to whom much treasure was entrusted, but who did nothing with it, only buried it (Matt. 25:25). The Jews are like the guests who are invited to the banquet, but regarded something else as more im­portant and so excused themselves (Luke 14:18). With an eye on the nation Jesus speaks of children who sit in the market place but, due to their sheer quarrelsomeness, find no time to play (Matt. 11:16, 17); and he tells a parable of the wicked vinedressers who maltreat the messengers of their lord, and finally kill the son and heir (Mark 12:1—9). And the more clearly Jesus foresees this sort of thing, the greater becomes the cleavage between him and his people.

But the decisive reason for hostility has not yet been touched upon. The strict Jewish piety of Jesus’ day rested upon the interpretation of the Bible. Everything had to be derived from the Scriptures, everything had to be proved by them. Jesus occasionally refuted the scribes with a Scripture passage (Mark 12:26), but he did not derive his own mes­sage from the Bible. The Law with its precepts could have become for men the occasion for recognizing the absolute will of God. But men have defrauded themselves of this op­portunity by their expansion of the precepts into a legal sys­tem. As a result, Jesus was now obliged to announce what must obtain in the Kingdom of God, viz., the pure will of God. Therefore in the Sermon on the Mount he put his “but I say unto you” alongside of what “was said to them of old time “; but he did it as the one who himself knew God’s will, without deducing it from something else and without any supporting argument. He spoke as one who possessed authority and power, and not like their scribes (Matt. 7:29) — but in the eyes of the Jews that could be viewed only as heresy. For the voices of the prophets were now silent, and no one had the right to announce the will of God on his own account. Consequently the authority that Jesus exercised —no matter what name one gives to it — must be looked upon as blasphemy. Jesus was the archheretic — what need had they of further witness!

To the Jewish authorities the events of the last days of Jesus’ life appeared to be a confirmation of this estimate. The Galilean heretic had come with his retinue to Jerusalem for

the Passover, the national religious commemoration of the deliverance from Egypt. This was the feast at which all their hopes were annually revived, when throngs of pilgrims, in­cluding Galileans, streamed into the city. Throughout the city and in camps outside it were to be found these crowds of pilgrims. The entry of Jesus into the holy city became a triumph, especially through the part taken in it by the pil­grims. Shouts and acclamations of Messianic import were heard. Once in Jerusalem itself, within the sacred Temple area, Jesus came forward as the one who “possessed au­thority and power.” In the outer forecourt sat the dealers selling doves for the sacrifices; there stood the tables of the money-changers, who changed the foreign money and coins of the Roman standard for the old Hebraic or Phoenician money, since it alone was used in the Temple. All these people Jesus expelled from the holy precincts, with words of severe rebuke. He thus not only drew down upon him­self the enmity of the persons expelled, but at the same time thereby raised the question as to his authority and its basis; his followers became excited and threatening.

What Jesus himself expected we do not know. But as his journey to Jerusalem has already suggested (see p. 62), so too this public manifestation signifies that he was seeking a decision upon his cause and demanding a decision from the people. His adversaries attempted to unmask him as an enemy either of the Temple or of the Roman government of occupation, in order in one way or the other to obtain a weapon against him. The days of the festival were fast ap­proaching. Jesus must be put out of the way.

It seems that the plan of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish chief council, was to dispose of Jesus before the feast — this is in­dicated in Mark 14:2. And it also seems that the realization of this plan was actually accomplished just before the feast.  According to Mark 14:2, the Sanhedrin was afraid to wait until the festival for Jesus’ arrest. But this is no eyewitness report; instead it is a brief observation, drawing from what actually happened a conclusion as to what had been planned. Whoever put into the mouth of Jesus’ opponents the words, “Not during the feast,” knew that Jesus had been crucified before the Passover and hence deduced from this the plan of the Jewish council. And the one who wrote thus was not the Evangelist Mark, but another, the author of an older Passion story. We can be sure of this since Mark’s own con­ception of the chronology is quite different.

All the Evangelists have Jesus die on a Friday. But accord­ing to the Synoptists this Friday — i.e., the twenty-four hours from Thursday evening to Friday afternoon inclusive — is the first day of the Passover. It is certainly improbable enough that the procurator Pilate would have allowed ex­ecutions to take place on this high feast day. The Gospel of John likewise (ch. 18:28; see also chs. 19:14; 13:1) gives us clearly to understand, but without further stressing the point, that the first Passover day in that year coincided with the Sabbath. This is not a Johannine correction of other con­ceptions, for then more emphasis would have been given to the information, but it is a piece of tradition that had come to the Fourth Evangelist just as much other matter also did, especially matter in the Passion story. To the same date points also that decision of the Sanhecirin already mentioned (Mark 14:2), which would not stand at the beginning of the Passion story if it had not actually been carried out. And fi­nally must be included time change made by Mark in the date of the Last Supper and of Jesus’ death. It finds expres­sion in Mark only in the short passage, ch. 14:I2—16 (not once in the account of the Supper itself); therefore its pur­pose is merely to make Jesus’ Last Supper into a Passover meal and thus bring out the connection between Old Testa­ment rite and Christian sacrament. For all these reasons, preference must be given to the dating that puts the first day of the Passover on the Sabbath, and therefore makes Jesus die on the day before the Passover (see p. 53).

The leaders of the nation intended to do away with Jesus quietly, before the feast, in one swift stroke. Jesus was pass­ing the nights outside the city, in Bethany (Mark 11:11). In the evening he was on the Mount of Olives; festival pilgrims must also have had their camps out there. It would perhaps not be difficult to seize him there in the darkness of the night, without attracting attention; but probably it would be difficult to find him. A guide was needed who was famil­iar with Jesus’ habits, and they found one in the person of Judas. During those days, while Jesus remained in Jerusalem, Judas must have been won over by them for this infamous service.

But as to the reasons for this betrayal, by which Judas’ name has come down to after ages as an ignominious sym­bol of treachery, we know nothing. For the Passion story is not concerned to give reasons for decisions or to describe states of mind; its concern is only to establish faith in Jesus by means of its portrayal of events and to show that “ac­cording to the Scripture” things had to happen as they did. To exhibit God’s will in the Passion of Jesus is its original intention; its motto is to a certain extent the saying, “The Son of Man goes hence, as it is written of him” (Mark 14:21). This idea, that the Passion of Jesus fulfilled the Scrip­ture, had already become determinative for the earliest com­munities and had prompted them, even before there was any story of Jesus’ Passion, to read certain passages of the Old Testament as accounts of his suffering and death: e.g., Ps. 22; 3I; 69; Isa., ch. 53. In this way the ideas of the Christians about the suffering of their Lord were formed by the Old Testament. They were combined with what was already known, or believed to be known, about these ominous, ago­nizing hours. That lots were cast for Jesus’ garments, beneath the cross, was read out of Ps. 22:18; it corresponded, how­ever, with a customary practice at executions, and therefore that it also took place in this case is certainly most probable.

The mockery of the pious by the godless, who “wag their heads,” is the subject of Ps. 22:7. The motive had been incor­porated in the Passion story as early as Mark 15:29, where the words about the head-wagging were quoted; but the psychological probability of this behavior is so great that no one will judge this detail to be a mere insertion. The Biblical saying in Isa. 53:12, “He was reckoned among the trans­gressors,” helped the communities to bear the disgrace of their Lord’s death between robbers (Mark 15:27); but is it not altogether likely that Pilate, in his short visit to Jerusa­lem, settled other matters that awaited his decision, and among them the passing of several death sentences, which was a duty belonging to his office?

From the Old Testament too the idea may very early have been gained that Jesus had been deeply agitated and had complained aloud, and that in this situation he had sought and found comfort in prayer (Ps. 31:22; 39:12). This convic­tion also accounts for the words in The Epistle to the Hebrews that speak of his “strong crying and tears” (Heb. 5:7); on the other hand, taken in connection with the reported ad­monition, “Stay awake and pray,” it also explains the Geth­semane scene in the Synoptic Gospels. We must not burden the interpretation of this scene with our own ideas! Here speaks no neutral observer who, with complete objectivity, notes that Jesus had for a moment shown signs of weakness. Here speaks rather a Christian, who recognizes in the cry of the Lord a confirmation of the divine will as it was re­vealed in the Old Testament. Not in spite of the fact that he cries out, but because he cries out, Jesus is the one who is fulfilling this divine will. The same holds good of the last utterance (as in Mark and Matthew), “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? “ Even this is not the outcry of one overwhelmed with despair, but is the beginning of Ps. 22; and the one who makes this his prayer is certainly not seized with rebellion against God, but is living and dying at peace with God. Either Jesus did actually pray thus, in which case it was not despair but faith that inspired him, or else these words were placed on his lips, in which case the purpose was not to describe his collapse — who among the Christians would have dared to offer such a description! —but to indicate his oneness with God’s will.

The Passion narrative is the only long passage in the Gos­pels that relates events in complete sequence (see p. 33). In this sole instance an effort was made to portray events in suc­cession, since the narrators were thus able to make it plain that the events were to be understood by reference to God’s will. And in this case it was possible to relate the full course of things because sufficient material was available. Until the hour in Gethsemane, Jesus had been attended by his entire band. The scene in Gethsemane, of course, no one could really describe; for even the three most intimate disciples had then been overcome by sleep (Mark 14:37, 40). But of the arrest of Jesus the disciples were all witnesses, and the oldest account we possess seems also to appeal to a young man outside the circle of the disciples. He was clad only with a cloak — perhaps because he had been startled out of sleep in the camp of the pilgrims, in the confusion of the at­tack — and he had followed the crowd. The men who came with Judas seized him by the cloak; he left it in their hands and fled naked. This inglorious episode would not have been told (Mark 14:51, 52) if the young man had not been known to the earliest narrator. The same holds true of the procession to Golgotha. Here Mark and the two other Synoptics tell of an otherwise unknown Cyrenian by the name of Simon, who met the procession and was compelled to bear the cross for the Condemned. What is meant by this is probably the transverse beam on which the offender is first bound and then hoisted up upon a firmly placed pole. But Mark knows also the sons of Simon, Alexander and Rufus (ch. 15:21) —a matter without point for the episode; therefore he or some still earlier narrator must have been acquainted with them. Finally, in Mark 15:40, women are mentioned who had journeyed with Jesus from Galilee and so had been wit­nesses of the crucifixion; perhaps here too the narrator is in­dicating how Christian circles obtained information about the death of their Master. Thus while granting the limita­tions and conditions of our knowledge, we may nevertheless venture to trace the course of events.



On his last evening, Jesus had gathered his disciples to­gether for a supper. Only ceremonial meals were eaten at the beginning of night; the customary hour for the main meal was earlier. If our chronology is correct then this was not a Passover meal; perhaps it was thought of as an introduction to the feast, as “the Kiddush” (Dedica­tion) — in any case it became a farewell meal. For during the supper Jesus took a flat, round loaf of bread, broke it, as one usually did with bread, and divided the portions of the one loaf among his disciples. In the same way after sup­per, since goblets with wine were standing on the table, he had one of these goblets passed around among them, and each disciple drank from it. Any man of the ancient world, or any primitive man, would have understood the meaning of such an act even without accompanying words: the disci­ples were to feel themselves to be a fellowship, just as they had already been while they journeyed, ate, and drank with the Master. For eating together binds the partakers of the meal one to another. However, on this evening, Jesus only distributed, and did not himself partake. And when he said, over the bread, “This is my body,” it was not merely a con­firmation of the old fellowship, but the founding of a new one; for the words, “This is . . . ,“ can also mean to a Sem­ite, “This is from now on to be . . .“ (see John 19:26). Both the act and the word affirm, accordingly, that the disciples are to remain united as Jesus’ fellowship, whether he is personally among them or not. The words that Jesus spoke over the wine have been handed down in more than one form. One has to reckon with the fact that the communities, looking back upon the Lord’s death, elucidated this action for them­selves. The earliest form of the words, as handed down by Paul (I Cor. 11:25), runs, “This cup is the new covenant  in my blood .” And, accord­ing to Mark 14:25, Jesus added still another saying, “Truly I tell you, I will not again drink of the fruit of the vine un­til the coming day when I drink it new in God’s Kingdom.” This utterance likewise points in the same direction as the others: separation from the Master is what confronts this circle, but they are to remain united, even without him, until the day when the table fellowship is renewed in the Kingdom of God. This is his foundation. Even if Jesus had not spoken of his death, he did nevertheless establish this independent fellowship. The Last Supper signifies the found­ing of the Church.

After the supper, Jesus goes with his disciples out of the city, over the Brook Kidron, and up the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane. It may well have been his cus­tomary evening haunt; perhaps other followers, like that young man, found h~m here. In any case, those who came out to seize him could do so in this spot if someone who knew about it were to lead them. And it actually happened that one of the disciples fell so low as to make possible this sudden stroke, by making known the place and the Man! It was Judas Iscariot, who had stolen away from the supper. He now came up to Jesus and greeted him as pupils greeted their master with the address “ Rabbi “ and a kiss. Then the armed band who had surrounded the place knew whom and whom alone they had to seize. They stepped out of the dark­ness and took Jesus prisoner. The resistance of a single fol­lower was soon broken. The disciples fled.

The hearing which the court gave Jesus was not reported to the Christian community, so it appears, by an eyewitness. According to the Gospels, the prisoner was first brought be­fore the Sanhedrin, presided over by the high priest, and there his death was decided on. However, though the Jews had jurisdiction over their own affairs, they did not possess the right to execute the death penalty, and so Jesus had to be led before the Roman procurator, who was in Jerusalem for the festival. But the latter did not need to open a new trial; instead, he had only to decide whether, according to his judgment, the punishment should be carried out. And he decided upon execution! From now on, once more, we know what many saw, and what many a one like Simon of Cyrene and the women reported. It is therefore authentic fact that Jesus was not stoned to death, after the Jewish method, but was crucified, after the Roman method.

This is reported by all our sources. Some of them know still more. John tells of a hearing before the old high priest, Annas, and of a detailed questioning of Jesus by Pilate; Luke, of an ineffectual inquiry by Herod, Jesus’ sovereign in Gali­lee; Matthew, of an intercession for the condemned on the part of Pilate’s wife. All four Evangelists, however, unani­mously report one feature: Pilate intended to set Jesus free at the festival, i.e., to treat his case as a kind of Passover am­nesty. The populace, however, rejected this, and begged amnesty for another prisoner, named Barabbas, who with others had committed murder in an insurrection. That this insurrection had any connection with Jesus’ cause is not only incapable of proof but obviously counter to the meaning of the text: opposed to the King of the Kingdom of God must be set a rival, one who is most deeply involved in the world’s iniquity. Even though we know nothing of any such amnesty as a custom, there is no reason to doubt the scene; the as­sumption of invention would mean ascribing to the earliest reporters a plastic propensity and a poetic power such as is not to be observed elsewhere in the narrative.

To be sure, the course of events described by the Evange­lists has been doubted on other grounds; for one thing, the Jews at that time still did have the right of execution. The fact that Jcsus was crucified, and not stoned to death, proves, moreover, that he was deftly and quickly shifted from the Sanhedrin into the hands of the Romans. Whatever may have been the case as to the Jewish right of execution at that date, the procedure was in any event a hurried trial, cor­responding neither to Jewish nor to Roman law. The Chris­tians assumed that a saying of Jesus against the Temple played some part in this, and the outcome proves that Jesus was led to Pilate with the political charge of being a pre­tender to the throne (see p. 95). Of the disciples only Peter was nearby, but not where he could hear any of the testi­mony. He had slipped into the courtyard of the palace where the Sanhedrin was assembled—according to John 18:15 he was led in by a Jerusalem follower of Jesus. There, however, the men and women servants found out that he belonged to Jesus; he tried to get out of this by brusquely denying any connection with the prisoner. That Peter — sometime during the night, and before the hour that was called “cock-crow”— was unfaithful to his Lord was acknowledged by the earli­est community. Probably the apostle himself, later on, as an­nouncer of the resurrection, found in the vision vouchsafed him the divine forgiveness for his disloyalty, and so related the one fact with the other.

Pilate resided in the palace of Herod on the west side of the city. When the execution had been approved by the pro­curator, after a hurried examination, soldiers led Jesus and two others consigned to the same fate out of the north gate of the city to the place of execution. The little hill, on which the poles had already been set up, was called, on account of its shape, Golgotha, “a skull.” Thus the procession did not go by the route that is shown today as “the way of the cross “; for that assumes that the Castle of Antonia, just north of the Temple on the eastern hill, was the starting point. The crucifixion was introduced, as usual, by a scourg­ing; no wonder that Jesus was so weakened by the journey to the place of execution that Simon of Cyrene had to carry the wooden crossbeam for him. That Jesus’ body had already suffered severe injuries is shown also by his quick death. The time from nine o’clock in the forenoon till three in the afternoon is relatively short; for execution on the cross was an agonizing punishment which included long-drawn-out death pangs and was usually ended at last with the fatal spear thrust. Shocks of all kinds might shorten the agony; nails and their marks, however, find their first mention in John. The possibility of a quick hemorrhage seems hardly likely. It was, in the words of Cicero, the worst and most frightful form of the death penalty.

This death in ignominy and shame was soon to be cele­brated in adoration by a mighty throng of confessors of Jesus. But when it took place, not the least of his sufferings was the fact that not a single friend was near him. At least none was nearby who as a witness handed on to Jesus’ com­munity the memory of his last hours. It would have been natural to fill out these gaps in the Christians’ knowledge with elevating and touching traits, and so to provide a legend for the Martyr. This did in fact take place later, and is to be observed most clearly in Luke. A prayer for his enemies, the conversion of a fellow victim, and (in John) concern for his mother — these are the utterances that characterize the Dying One; one may at least say of them that they are worthy of his message and in this sense they are not unfairly placed upon his lips. But the earliest narrative, as preserved by Mark, knows nothing of all this. It contents itself with portraying the picture of the Crucified in a few verses according to the Passion testimonies of the Old Testament, according to Ps. 22 and 69, according to Isa., ch. 53. In so doing it meets —as has been shown already in regard to the motif of the divi­sion of his garments — what is historically correct or at least probable. But that is not its primary reason for doing so; in­stead, it is the certainty that everything had taken place ac­cording to the Scripture, i.e., according to God’s will, and that Jesus’ enemies demonstrated, without knowing it, that God’s eternal counsel of salvation was here being fulfilled. Thus his being numbered among the transgressors, as well as his refreshment with a drink (or perhaps it was an attempt to benumb his senses, Mark 15:23), the casting of lots for his garments, and also the mockery of those who passed by —all these details are understood as evidence of the will of God. And so likewise even the Roman governor himself is made to preach the Gospel: he has the inscription that was placed over the crossbeam announce that Jesus is “the King of the Jews “— the Messiah. And the last word of Jesus is the cry of prayer with which the classical Passion psalm begins (and not a cry of despair), “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? “ It proclaims that Jesus died according to God’s will.

The shame of this death is God’s will; that is what the old­est form of the Passion story tries to say. No miracle inter­venes, and the challenge to Jesus, the Miracle Worker, now to save himself sinks away as unrelieved mockery. What Mark relates in the way of accompanying “ signs” is in­tended to impress upon the readers the world-wide signifi­cance of this death: darkness covers the earth, a sinister por­tent befalls the Temple veil, while even the heathen world in the person of the Roman centurion recognizes the one who has just died as a Son of God. But these marvels exert no influence on the course of events (only in Luke is the popu­lace moved, ch. 23:48). They can no longer serve to comfort the dying Jesus. In utter humiliation and loneliness his life comes to an end.

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