Scot McKnight’s Jesus and His Death is, ironically, a breath of life into a field of decay. Against the North American trend which views the question of Jesus’ understanding of his own death as misguided, McKnight assumes as likely that Jesus thought he would die prematurely, in the providence of God, and would probably die at the hands of elites who saw his movement as a potential source of rebellion. “It only makes sense,” he states, “that one who thought he would die, who on other grounds considered himself a prophet, also tried to make sense of that death” (p 177). Jewish leaders like this regularly looked to prototypes from the Tanakh in order to make sense of death and destiny, and even if they never saw their deaths as atoning, it was always a “short step to the atoning value of these martyrdoms” (p 179).
The book is suspenseful as it works from a more general discussion of how Jesus made sense of his prophetic mission, to the idea that he thought he would die prematurely, to exactly how he made sense of that death. It gets the foundation right, backing Dale Allison’s important dissertation, The End of the Ages Has Come: Jesus believed he was living in the end times, on the brink of the tribulation period. Like Allison, McKnight favors the collective interpretation of the apocalyptic Son of Man (Dan 7), referring to the suffering and vindication of Jesus and his followers in the last days (p 173) (see also Allison’s Millenarian Prophet, pp 65-66).
McKnight examines the Old Testament scripts invoked in the gospels — hardly leaving a stone untouched — and asks whether or not these were used by Jesus to make sense of his impending death. He finds that they do not, dealing instead with how the prophet understood his mission. In Mt 8:20/Lk 9:58, for instance, Jesus applied the script of Psalm 8 (in conjunction with 144) to himself and followers, making sense of the fact that they were itinerants who needed food and shelter (pp 191-194); Lk 9:61-62 points to an early period when Jesus saw himself as Elijah (pp 194-196); the calling of twelve special disciples may indicate a Joshua script, the formation of Israel’s nation at the Jordan River, which would be reconstituted at the apocalypse (Mt 19:28/Lk 22:28-30) (pp 200-201); and especially noteworthy is Mt 10:34-36/Lk 12:51-53, which alludes to the prophecy of Micah, through which we find “a rare glimpse into the inner mind of Jesus” (citing Caird) (pp 201-204).
For this last, McKnight notes how Jesus reversed the expectations of Malachi with Micah. While Elijah was supposed to bring peace and put an end to the family chaos in Micah (Mal 4:6; Mic 7:6), Jesus denied that he brought peace — he brought a “sword” and “division”, evidently concluding that he wasn’t Elijah after all (though he may have thought this initially). John was Elijah, while he was more like Micah. From the time of John/Elijah forward there would be an ugly time of tribulation (Mt 11:12/Lk 16:16) (a belief which probably owed in large measure to the rejection Jesus experienced from his own family (p 203)).
Moving into tangled territory, McKnight takes on the question of Isaiah’s suffering servant (Isa 52:13-53:12), where Christian tradition has for centuries seen Jesus reflecting on the pivotal meaning of his death. Against many scholars (Dodd, Taylor, Cadoux, Manson, Jeremias, Marshall, Caird, Wright), McKnight demonstrates that the servant song doesn’t provide a reliable anchor here (see pp 207-224). At best Jesus applied Isaiah minimally to his present ordeal (“he was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering”), but not the parts later pressed into actual atonement theory (“he was wounded for our transgressions; by his bruises we are healed”).
Turning to the passion predictions (Mk 8/Mk 9/Mk 10 and pars in Mt-Lk), McKnight finds that they breathe the air of prophetic martyrdom rather than atonement (p 230), and that they’re more about vindication than death in any case. The scriptural basis for them is mostly Dan 7, showing that God will vindicate the Son of Man and his followers at the apocalypse (p 238).
All of these scripts, but some less than others — the Psalmist’s Son of Man, Elijah, Joshua, and Micah, Isaiah’s suffering servant, and Daniel’s apocalyptic Son of Man — helped Jesus make sense of his prophetic mission in light of the tribulation period, the opposition he now faced, and the expected vindication/resurrection of him and his followers. But none offer a reliable window onto how Jesus saw his death, and the ransom saying of Mk 10:45/Mt 20:28 is doubtfully traceable to Jesus (p 356).
Where we finally locate Jesus’ understanding of his death is in the eucharist account, related in the synoptic gospels and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. McKnight’s analysis of the last supper has to be the best available, and is alone worth the price of the book. Not since Jeremias has the eucharist been so carefully weighed and considered against the background of Judaic passover. McKnight basically argues that the flesh and blood of the passover lamb was replaced by Jesus’ own “body and blood” (in the bread and wine), intended to protect his followers from God’s fiery judgment against Jerusalem and its leaders (p 323).
McKnight thus finds John’s chronology to be more likely than that of the synoptic gospels (p 270). Jesus celebrated passover a day early, without a lamb and in a home more readily available, and saw in the bread his sacrificial body (he was now the lamb) and in the wine his blood (p 271). He was thus reenacting the ancient tradition of smearing blood on the doors of Israelite homes so that God would deliver his people from oppressors. When Paul says that “Jesus is our paschal lamb” (I Cor 5:7), and when the fourth gospel writer refers to Jesus as “the lamb of God” (Jn 1:29), we are in touch, however obliquely, with the historical Jesus.
It’s crucial to keep passover sacrifice distinct from other forms of sacrifice, and McKnight (initially) does this quite well, distinguishing passover from covenant-ceremony and atonement (p 285). Passover sacrifice did not atone/forgive; it protected. Yahweh “passed over” those so protected when he came in judgment (p 281). Passover was also not a covenant ceremony; while covenant sacrifice dealt with relationship and commitment, passover was all about deliverance from tyranny and bondage. Exod 12 and 24 are, as McKnight puts it, “countries and ideas apart” (p 308).
The problem is that the synoptic writers and Paul portray the last supper as a covenant-renewal:
(Mark) This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. (14:24)
(Matthew) This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins. (26:28)
(Luke) This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (22:20)
(Paul) This cup is the new covenant in my blood. (I Cor 11:25)
Matthew’s “forgiveness of sins” (signaling atonement) is widely acknowledged as redactional, but what about the multiply-attested “covenant”? McKnight argues convincingly that covenant ideas do not trace back to Jesus anymore than Matthew’s sin-forgiveness. His argument can be outlined as follows (see pp 308-311).
* In the entire gospel tradition (including John), covenant is attributed to Jesus only at the last supper, “a text cystallizing a tradition that itself became a liturgical expression in earliest Christianity.” (p 308)
* Jesus based his vision on “kingdom”, not covenant. “Kingdom is the term Jesus chose to build his dream on; one doesn’t surrender one’s dream terms easily.” (p 309)
* The last supper betrays few signs of a covenant ceremony. The following prerequisites are missing: an oath, a promise, blessings for followers and curses for opponents, an unconditional bond for the suzerain, and a promise of blessings for Jesus’ followers. If Jesus is setting forth a new covenant, he does so without specifying it as such, “a practice abnormal in Judaism”. (p 310)
* Accordingly, Jesus probably only said, “this is my blood”, a tidy parallel to “this is my body”. (p 310)
* There are big steps needed to get from “my blood” in the context of passover sacrifice, to “my blood of the covenant”, and then to “the new covenant in my blood”. It was early Jerusalem-based Christians, or Paul and his associates, and then the writer of Hebrews, who took those steps. (p 311)
McKnight explains further:
“In the exegetical workshop of earliest messianism, then, the tool of covenant became a way of sifting the relationship of believers in Jesus Christ to the scriptural revelation of Torah and its people, Israel. For Paul, it was a tool that separated the Mosaic covenant from the new covenant, primarily by recognizing the significance of the Holy Spirit. For the writer of Hebrews, it was a tool that ontologically separated the old system from the new system, primarily by recognizing the effectiveness of the forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and his intercessory powers. If Paul crossed the threshold by sorting out the relationship of the old to the new in terms of covenant, the author of Hebrews set up shop and made the category his home to an unprecedented degree.” (p 303)
For Paul, of course, Christ’s death was many things — an example to be followed, a ransom price, a sin offering, a passover sacrifice, and an atoning sacrifice, (all on which see Finlan’s book). Covenant crops up occasionally in his letters, but not in terms of Christ’s death, only to contrast how the Spirit accomplishes what the Torah/covenant could not. For the author of Hebrews, Christ’s death became not only an atoning sacrifice but a covenant-establishing event. But in the beginning, Jesus understood his death to be a passover sacrifice. That’s all.
Having delivered such a convincing thesis, McKnight then undercuts it in his conclusion with a confusion of terminology. He writes:
“[Jesus saw his death as] vicarious and protecting. In stating that the bread was his body and the wine his blood, Jesus suggested that he was the passover victim whose blood would protect his followers from the imminent judgment of God against Jerusalem and its corrupt leadership. We have here the first genuine glimpse of a death that somehow atones. Jesus’ theory of the atonement then is that his own death, and his followers’ participation in that death by ingestion, protects his followers from the Day of YHWH, which in the prophets especially is often described as the wrath of YHWH. As the avenging angel of the passover in Egypt ‘passed over’ the first-born children whose fathers had smeared blood on the door, so the Father of Jesus would ‘pass over’ those followers who ingested Jesus’ body and blood.” (p 339; italics mine)
In claiming that passover sacrifice is a form of atonement after all, McKnight erases proper distinctions he made up to this point (see especially p 285). Atonement involved forgiving sins, whether understood in propitiary terms (appeasing an angry God with sacrifice) or expiatory terms (wiping sin away by harnessing the lifeforce in the blood of the sacrifice). Passover had nothing to do with forgiveness, nothing to do with atonement. It had to do with protection.
The problem is that in the above citation McKnight falls into the common trap of confusing vicariousness with atonement. But vicarious simply means “for the benefit of others”, and we saw in my review of Stephen Finlan’s book that Paul understood Christ’s death to be vicarious in four different ways (atonement but one of the four). So accurately speaking, Jesus saw his death as vicarious — it would protect his followers when God rained judgment down on everyone — but not atoning.
Aside from the confusion of terminology (and even concepts) at the end, I found myself agreeing with most of what is presented in Jesus and His Death. McKnight has seriously redressed a dimension to the historical Jesus which is too often ignored in the academy. Jesus lived on a landscape of eschatology and martyrdom. However foreign that landscape is to us (it certainly is to me), we need to get comfortable with ideas that pertain to it.