Jesus and the God of Israel (5)

JGI.jpgBauckham, Richard.

Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity

Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans, 2008. Pp. xii + 285. Paper. $34.00.

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With thanks to Lara Sissell at Eerdmans for this review copy!

While it’s customary to save the best for last it seems that Bauckham reserved his worst for the end of this book.  In chapter 8 “God’s Self-Identification with the Godforsaken” Bauckham managed to once again confirm why I much prefer when he sticks to matters of Christology and/or Biblical studies and leaves the theology alone, i.e., he’s just not very good at it.  It’s like Michael Jordan’s stint in minor league baseball — something to watch even if painful.  He opens by describing the chapter as “an exegetical and theological study of Jesus’ cry from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:39; Matt. 27:46).” (p. 254)  Such a description leads the reader to believe that his theology will flow from his exegesis but in point of fact when Bauckham discusses his theology of godforsakenness he abandons the rigorous attention to what the text actually does say that marks his method throughout the rest of this book.  His argument in a nutshell is that Jesus really was abandoned and forsaken by God on the cross (and the three hours of darkness before his death).  He rejects any interpretation that would see Jesus as merely expressing a feeling of abandonment while not actually being abandoned.  Likewise, he rejects that Jesus’ cry was merely a reference to his being Israel’s Messiah by appeal to Psalm 22.

Bauckham gets so much right in this chapter that it’s almost unfathomable how he can proffer the interpretation that he does.  For example, he rightly notes that in quoting the first verse of the 22nd psalm Jesus intends his hearers to hearken back to the entire psalm.  He also correctly notes that the psalm is one of both lament and deliverance.  One would think that the conclusion drawn from these two facts would be that Jesus knows that he is not actually being forsaken by God, although it may appear and even feel this way, but rather that in this appearance of godforsakenness Jesus is confident that his Father will deliver him.  This is certainly the picture we get when turning to other Gospels (see e.g., Lk. 23:43, 46; Jo. 16:28, 32).  But when discussing the fact of deliverance in Psalm 22 Bauckham says:

This does not mean that the psalmist was mistaken in thinking himself forsaken by God, but that God heard and answered his cry out of his forsakenness. Beyond the forsakenness, God intervened to deliver. (p. 260)

But the fact that God did hear the psalmist’s prayer and the fact that God did deliver the psalmist does mean that the psalmist was in fact mistaken in thinking himself forsaken!  The way he felt didn’t correspond to the way things actually were!  That God answers our cries for help according to his time, and not ours, does not mean that we’re forsaken by God until he answers; such a thought is ridiculous on its face.  Also ridiculous is the reasoning employed by Bauckham when he says:

Though Mark does not allude to the second part of the psalm, the several allusions to the first part of the psalm certainly invite competent readers to recall the whole psalm. In Jesus’ case, his cry of abandonment is answered by God beyond his death — in resurrection. But this does not make his abandonment unreal or merely how Jesus felt. God did leave him to die. His dying cry expresses the abandonment by God that death is. (p. 260)

If we follow Bauckham’s reasoning here then God forsakes all people since all people die (Heb. 9:27).  To argue for an actual abandonment, one has to go well beyond what the text says, and when looking at the broader canonical witness, against what other texts say (e.g., 2Cor. 5:19).  At best we have Jesus quoting a psalm which probably was meant to draw his hearers’ attention to the entire psalm (something Bauckham admits) and also probably expressed how he felt while dying in one of the most excruciating ways possible.  What we have is a question, not a statement.  I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find Bauckham’s treatment in this chapter woefully lacking.  It read more like a paraphrase of Moltmann’s theology of the cross than an exegetical interpretation of Mark’s Gospel.

My concluding thoughts on Jesus and the God of Israel are that it is an outstanding resource, this last chapter withstanding.  Bauckham’s exegesis is generally solid and compelling and there’s little question that he’s well versed in ancient literature.  His arguments are for the most part clearly presented and well-argued although I would have liked to have seen him a bit more conversant with other scholars in the field, but I have to remember that this is a collection of previously written essays, each of which has a narrow focus.

There are however some shortcomings in this volume (aside from my assessment of the final chapter).  For example:

  • Certain things such as entire passages (e.g., p. x cf. p. 185; p. 130-31 cf. 179 n. 64; p. 184-85 cf. p. 234-35) and footnotes (p. 23 n. 44 cf. p. 154 n. 6; p. 214 n. 76; 238 n. 6) are repeated almost verbatim.
  • There’s no real flow to the reading because each chapter can stand alone and be read on its own.
  • There’s an inconsistency is formatting with some essays employing transliterations while others use Hebrew and Greek characters.
  • There is no list of abbreviations in either the beginning or end of the book which makes placing certain citations more difficult than it should be.
  • There is no bibliography.

One sticking point is the constant mention throughout the book of ontic/functional categories as being the wrong categories. As I mentioned in the first part of my review:

Bauckham perhaps unfairly critiques patristic conceptions God and Christ by broad brushing them as being concerned mainly (perhaps only?) with ontology. In point of fact the fathers’ initial concern was salvation which caused them to ask what kind of savior the Son had to be in order to save us.

Bauckham says: “Early Christian interest was primarily in soteriology and eschatology, the concerns of the gospel, and so, in the New Testament, it is primarily as sharing or implementing God’s eschatological lordship that Jesus is understood to belong to the identity of God.” (p. 235 cf. 184) Not much changed from the concerns of those in the NT to the patristic writers of the 3rd to 5th centuries. It’s also more than a bit ironic that immediately after claiming that functional/ontic categories are the wrong categories Bauckham goes on to describe his “Christology of divine identity” in a way that can only be understood according to those categories and sometimes slips into blatant use of the categories themselves (see e.g., p. 240 n. 10)!  While Bauckham’s language is fresh and unique, the concepts behind the language are not. This isn’t a reason to abandon the language, but it is a reason to question his reluctance to accept these allegedly un-Jewish categories or describe them as messing up the entire enterprise of interpreting the Bible.

These criticisms aside I think this is a fine volume and one that every student of early Christology needs to have on their shelf.  While it’s not the promised ‘big book’ on Jesus that Bauckham fans have been hoping for for the last decade, it will certainly hold us over until that one arrives.

B”H

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