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Saint of the Day: St. John I
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Understanding Golgotha


Crucifixion by Rembrandt

James V. Schall, S.J. - published on 08/08/14

A review of "The Gospel Accounts of the Death of Jesus."

“It is John’s way of affirming again that the hand of God directed the whole salvific event of Golgotha for the good of all, both Jews and Gentiles. What John does in his citations from Scripture is really what all the Evangelists do in the face of the great event of Jesus’ death which they seek to recount—they affirm that God’s hand is here. They are so concerned with showing ‘what really happened’ at Golgotha that they cannot be contained by mere historical details in their explanation of the great event. Jesus died at Golgotha.”
–Ernest R. Martinez, S. J., The Gospel Accounts of the Death of Jesus.

These reflections are occasioned by my reading of Ernest Martinez’s book on the Gospel accounts of Christ’s death. Martinez is a classmate of mine in the Jesuit Order. After I arrived in Los Gatos in 2012, I came across a notice of the publication of this book in 2008. I knew even from my own Roman days in the 1960’s and 70’s that Father Martinez had been working his way through the account of Jesus’ death in Mark’s Gospel. But I had not known that this more complete book was published. It takes into consideration all the references to Christ’s death in the whole of the New Testament, including the epistles, with any pertinent references to this death in the Old Testament. This book, in other words, is a comprehensive analysis of how the scriptures presented and understood the death of Jesus on Golgotha.

So I wrote sent an e-mail to Father Martinez, who is currently the Librarian in the Jesuit Curia in Rome. He kindly sent me a copy. It has taken me over a year to read this very scholarly and thoroughly researched book. It is a book that one can, as I did, read a few pages at a time. Much on each page is there to ponder. One thinks he has read the scripture until he comes across a book like this that reminds him of how much he missed or did not know. Though this is a scholarly book, one does not need to be an academic to read it. Martinez writes clearly and carefully. He explains the point he is making at each step. “The meaning of each Evangelist on the death of Jesus reflects a different facet of New Testament theology. Jesus’ death was for the many (Mark),  for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew), his exodus from the power of darkness and assumption into glory (Luke), and his being lifted up for the life of the world (John)” (288). The reading of the book demonstrates how each of themes is treated and how each is related to the whole description of what Christ’s death was about.

From my own studies, I have written a number of things on the Death of Christ. These considerations made Martinez’s understanding of Christ’s death doubly meaningful to me. In my book, At the Limits of Political Philosophy, Chapter 7 is entitled “On the Death of Socrates and the Death of Christ.” Both John Paul II and Benedict have remarked on the relation of these two deaths in intellectual history. Roughly, as I see it, political philosophy itself is concerned with, indeed founded by the basic issue of the just man being killed in a legal trial in the best city of its time. This fact pinpoints in a graphic, even poignant, way the conflict between politics and philosophy. Plato himself wondered if it always must be this way, that justice has no real home in any existing city. And Augustine took the issue a step further—the only real home is the City of God. If my reading of Martinez is correct, he would agree with the abidingness of the conflict and the only real location of its ultimate solution.

Martinez was a student of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and at the Gregorian University. He has taught at Loyola/Marymount University, the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, and at the Gregorian University. Obviously, this study is the work of many decades of careful, meticulous analysis. It requires a knowledge of all the biblical languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, as well as Latin, German, Italian, French, Spanish, the modern languages in which most of the scholarship on the bible is written. Martinez is obviously a master of his subject matter. He is strikingly judicious in his careful consideration of the evidence. The book is carefully arranged with indices and cross-references that enable the reader constantly check a source or where some issue was previously treated. As a reader, I marveled at the luminous thoroughness in which each part of the book is related to the whole exposition.

The central portion of this book wants to know exactly what is said about the death of Christ in each of the different Gospels. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, Martinez wants to know what each writer had in mind in his understanding of the events that led up to the Crucifixion. Many things in terms of dates, time, people, reporting of words, and place differ in one way or another in the four Gospels. At first sight, this variety of detail will seem to attest to a confusion or inaccuracy such that one need not take the reporting seriously. What is the power of this book is Martinez’s careful consideration of every “problem” that has arisen in the course of time and scholarship over these variations. The Catholic understanding of biblical scholarship is characterized by a meticulous attention to what the text says, the text’s integrity as it is handed down, how others have analyzed  text, and the meaning that the authors of the Gospel saw in the event.

This book reminds me of Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, When I finished the Pope’s book, what I carried away with me, as I do from the Martinez book, is a sense of completion and accuracy. In the popular mind, “religion” is often thought to be a fuzzy thing. Stories of Christ are, well, “myths.” They never happened. Such naïve assumptions are simply untenable, of course. They are held usually because the sceptic does not want them to be true. Benedict, with his typical German scholarship, in the tradition of which Martinez obviously stands, concluded his study by simply stating that, according to all the evidence, which the Pope obviously had studied, Jesus Christ was who He said He was. That is, He was the Son of God. He lived when and where He is said to have lived. He died under Roman jurisdiction as the result of the provocation of specific Jewish leadership at the time.

No other explanation of His life—however many have been proposed–makes sense. After sifting through all the reasons given over the years about why this conclusion of Jesus’ divinity might not be true, after stating and weighing the reasons given, the only reasonable conclusion is that indeed it is true. Christ is who He said that He is. The coherence of reason, scholarship, and revelation is much more persuasive than many will admit. There is much avoidance of reason in the modern world. This may well be the root of why there is a failure to grasp the evidence for revelation.

Martinez’ book is very well constructed. No sub-section is more than two or three pages. A fair amount of original language is included in the text, but its meaning is generally clear or explained. Each topic is considered and covered as a unit. The book obviously deals with each Gospel’s account of the death of Jesus, plus what Paul and the other writers had to say about Christ’s death. We learn that each of these accounts will differ in purpose or details, yet each bear the same central theme. Martinez does not “force” any thesis or conclusion on the reader. If some issue seems unresolved, he lets it be unresolved. He gives his judgment about the best opinion that can be reached about it. He is not afraid to call some interpretations untenable.

The book is interested in the actual death of Jesus, including what medical analysis we can make of how the crucified suffered and died. Martinez finds that the death of Christ is never presented in the New Testament without reference to the Resurrection. Such a fact, of course, is enormously significant in understanding what Christ was about.

The death of Jesus as such, then, would seem from the formula to be of secondary importance since it is the fact of the resurrection that is the primary object of the statement. The overwhelming importance of the resurrection is evident in all of the authors of the New Testament we are to consider and in almost all of the passages we shall investigate. The death of Jesus is not usually even mentioned without the direct or indirect reference to the resurrection, and never without conscious realization that death is no more, that it was real, but now is a thing of the past, that Jesus was raised up, that he is alive (4).

The Evangelists were interested in the details of Christ’s death, but that was not their primary focus. Each read the Old Testament as the key to understanding how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies. Martinez is very good at explaining the Evangelists use of Old Testament citations. Christ died “that Scripture might be fulfilled”—words that invite a whole philosophic consideration of freedom and providence. “Matthew thinks of Jesus’ work as essentially one of fulfillment of Scripture” (116).

Like most academic books, this book is not inexpensive ($81.10), though as academic books go, it is about normal. And, as I said, my now thoroughly marked up copy was given to me. But if a book is to be estimated by its richness, not by its cost, this book is a gold mine of insight and information. Actually, it is more than that. It is a book that gets us to the heart of what Christ was about in this world.

Mark could hardly have exalted the centurion more than he does in making him a symbol or representative of all the Gentiles–and really of all persons—who follow him in confessing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. As far as Mark is concerned, the confession of the centurion at the death of Jesus is equivalent to a full Christian confession of belief in the divinity of Jesus. It is this he intends his readers to understand and anything less is a complete misunderstanding of the account of the death of Jesus and of the whole Gospel (362).

Such a passage is amusing as it shows Martinez’s annoyance at those who completely “misunderstand” what is actually happening in Scripture.

One could go on and on about the insights and conclusions contained in this very careful book. Every sub-section of the book is worth a careful read. The reader continues slowly. He finds the following passage in Martinez’ consideration of the death of Jesus in John:

The reference backward to the preceding episode and to all of Jesus’ life work is clearly emphasized as are the ideas of “knowing” and “finishing.” But the whole is basically forward looking in that the sentence does not describe the end but only the necessary prelude to the end which is the passing over from this world to the Father. The knowledge of Jesus in his passion is a very important theme for John and he stresses it several times to show that Jesus was not an unwilling victim of unavoidable circumstances but rather that he knew what was happening and willingly accepted it (416).

Such a passage makes us stop and think for a long while. As I said, it took me over a year to read this remarkable book. Part of the reason it took so long was that I did not want to read it any faster. It would be counter-productive.

So it is not just the meticulous scholarship that went into this book that impressed me. It was also the assurance that a man who knew what he was talking about, who knew where all problems were, took me through the Crucifixion on Golgotha with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and the rest. As I felt when I finished reading Benedict’s book, so do I feel in ending Martinez’ book, what we deal with when we serious look at what happened at Golgotha is the truth, the truth that said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” In a world that insists on denying the possibility of truth so that it can do as it wishes, this book comes quietly into our souls to assure us that all efforts to deny the truth are, in the end, intellectually incoherent.

When he sent the copy of his book to me, Father Martinez, with his signature, had this brief word to Schall: “May this book help you in the knowledge of the great love of God for us.” No doubt of it, this book is more than a help. It is an unfolding of the Word made flesh in a way that we can behold the reality of things and our place within it much more clearly than we did before. The Evangelists never spoke of the Crucifixion without reference to the resurrection. Nothing better explains what our life is really about.

James V. Schall, S.J.,
who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are
The Mind That Is Catholic
The Modern Age.

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