Book Review: Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days

Schnabel, Eckhard J. Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 680 pp. Hb; $60.   Link to Eerdmans

Eckhard Schnabel contributed a commentary on Acts in the Zondervan Exegetical New Testament Commentary (2011), Mark in the Tyndale Series (IVP Academic, 2017) and Romans in the Historical Theological Interpretation series (in German; Wuppertal: SCM & R. Brockhaus). With David W. Chapman, Schnabel published The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus: Texts and Commentary (WUNT/2 344; Tubingen: Mohr Mohr Siebeck, 2015; Hendrickson, 2019 forthcoming). Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days is similar to his Early Christian Mission (2 vol., IVP Academic 2004) in that Schnabel collects detailed notes on the people and places mentioned in the four Passion narratives. Essentially, Schnabel is interested in identifying who did what, where they did it and when it happened.

In the introduction to the book Schnabel argues this simple outline is an essential approach to help readers understand texts like the Passion Narratives. He rejects form criticism and more recent historical Jesus methods which employ the criteria of authenticity. Further, he wants to avoid the postmodern view that all history is subjective. He observes the fact very few practicing historians are impressed by philosophical objections to the possibility of truth in history (p. 4).

More positively, he reads the Gospels as similar to the Greek bios. The Gospels are expressions of faith, but they also provide examples from Jesus’s life and teaching which preserve the memory of Jesus. Here Schnabel builds on the work of Richard Bauckham and others who have focused on the significance of eyewitnesses for the transmission and preservation of the words and deeds of Jesus. To a large extent, many of the persons surveyed in chapter two of this book were eye-witnesses to the events of Jesus’s last week, and the earliest traditions concerning the authorship of the Gospels claimed Matthew and John were eyewitnesses. Schnabel believes this method of reading the “canonical Gospels as historical biographies of the life of Jesus that are based on the testimony of eyewitnesses and treating them as good historical sources is neither gullible nor uncritical” (p. 7).

Remarkably, Schnabel uses data from all four Gospels. For some this might not be a surprise, but in New Testament studies John’s Gospel is often dismissed as lacking historical details. For Schnabel, John’s chronological details are important (“six days before the Passover” in John 12:1, for example, p. 153). He includes John’s unique contributions to the Passion Narrative such as Jesus washing the disciple’s feet (John 13) and the farewell discourse (John 15:1-17:26).

Since he includes data from all four Gospels, the book can be read as a “harmony of the gospels.” An unfortunate result of this method is the flattening of the four gospels into one story so that the individual theological emphases of the writers are lost. But since this is a historical study of the last week of Jesus’s life not a biblical theology of any one of the Gospel writers, this observation is does not detract from the value of Schnabel’s work.

The first three chapters of the book can be read like a Bible Dictionary since they identify the people and places associated with Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem. The first chapter briefly identifies seventy-two people one encounters when reading the four versions of the passion stories in the Gospels. Some are named individuals like Annas, Caiaphas, Barabbas or Simon of Cyrene. Others sections treat groups of people, Pharisees, Sadducees, or experts in the Law. A few are rather generic, such as the gentiles, pilgrims, crowds, or the blind and lame. Schnabel includes brief units on the “rich people” in contrast to the widow who donates two coins (Mark 12:41). There are even brief paragraphs on obscure persons like the man with the water jar (Mark 14:13) or the soldier with the sponge (Mark 15:36).

Chapter two describes seventeen places, including larger areas such as the city Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives. Schnabel usually includes some discussion of the modern identification of locations such as Gethsemane, Golgotha and Jesus’s tomb. There are units on the residences of Annas, Caiaphas, and Herod and the location of the Sanhedrin building. These are important for reconstructing the trials of Jesus and his movements after his arrest. Throughout this section Schnabel uses detailed historical data to describe the locations mentioned in the Passion narrative.

In his brief third chapter Schnabel lays out his timeline for the events of Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem. He dates the crucifixion to A.D. 30 (Nisan 14, April 7-8) rather that A.D. 33 (Nisan April 3). He then offers a short description of what happened on each day, concluding with Sunday, Nisan 16 (April 9-10). He includes suggested hours of the day as well.

Chapter four traces the events of Jesus’s final days in Jerusalem from the anointing at Bethany to his resurrection appearances to the disciples. This is by far the longest chapter of the book, covering twenty-four topics in 223 pages. Since the topics are arranged chronologically, this chapter can be read sequentially as a commentary on the events of the Passion Week. Since the burden of the book is historical research rather than exegesis, there is little textual work in this chapter other than identifying Greek words. Schnabel sets important events like the Temple action into an Old Testament context. He states the symbolic action on the Temple Mount “was not anti-temple or anti-sacrifice. It was an action intended to announce the beginning of the messianic era” (p. 164).

He often refers to Second Temple literature in order to illustrate the events. When discussing the trial of Jesus he compares the accusations against Jesus as a mesit and maddiakah (a “seducer”) by comparing Deut 13:5-11 and the Temple Scroll (11Q Temple LIV, 8-LV, 10). When discussing the possibility the messiah was described as “Son of God” Schnabel cites 1Q28, 4Q174, and 4Q246 at length (p. 257-58). He interacts with Greco-Roman literature when necessary, such as Seneca’s description of crucifixion (Ep. 101.14, p. 315).

The final chapter of the book is a short theological essay on the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Schnabel concludes that Jesus exercised messianic, royal authority in his final week, a fact recognized by Pilate when he ordered “King of the Jews” to be written as the charge against Jesus (p. 377).  With respect to the theological meaning of Jesus’s death, Schnabel begins by reflecting on the suffering of God on the cross and concludes the deal was a sacrificial death “for sinners,” a substitutionary death which turned away the wrath of God (Romans 3:24-25; 5:1-2; 8:1). Using the sermons in the book of Acts, Schnabel argues in the earliest Christian preaching the resurrection did not supersede Jesus’s crucifixion (p. 390). Finally, Schnabel reflects on Jesus’s mission and the mission of his followers. Similar to his Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods (IVP Academic, 2008), Schnabel points to Luke’s commission of the disciples to go out from Jerusalem as witnesses “to the end of the world” (Acts 1:8). Similarly, Matthew concludes his gospel with a command to go, “making disciples” (Matt 28:18-20).

In addition, Schnabel includes thirteen excurses on details of the Passion Week which do not fit his people places and events scheme. For example, he has short notes on the Cursing of the Fig Tree and Peter’s Denials of Jesus. Some discuss historical details, such as Historicity of Annas’s Interrogation of Jesus or the Hour of Jesus’ crucifixion. Several of these sections concern the Greco-Roman context of the Passion Narrative, such as Crimes against the Emperor, The Passover Pardon and Roman Legal Precedent, Carrying the Crossbeam in Greco-Roman Sources, and Jesus’ Shout in Greco-Roman Perspective. He has a brief note on the ending of Mark, although it explains the shorter ending rather than a discussion of how the longer ending developed nor is there anything on the textual history of the longer ending.

The book includes occasional photographs, diagrams, and tables. Schnabel provides extensive endnotes (179 pages). For example, in chapter one there are 652 endnotes for only 90 pages. Although I prefer footnotes, endnotes make this book easy to consult on some detail of the Passion Narrative, further details are found in the notes. The book also includes a detailed bibliography (49 pages) and indices of authors, subjects, Scripture and other ancient writings references (51 pages). This means the body of the book is only 399 pages.

Conclusion. Schnabel’s Jesus in Jerusalem is a major contribution to the study of the final chapters of the four Gospels. The detail provide is staggering, yet the layout of the book is uncomplicated and comfortable for the non-expert.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Mark 15:24 – The Offense of the Cross

Mark is very brief and concise as he describes the crucifixion. The whole of Mark’s gospel has led up to the first phrase of verse 24, a simple line, “they crucified him.” He did not need to go into great detail, everyone in the Roman world knew what it was to be crucified, and as we saw a moment ago, it was considered impolite to talk about the execution in Roman society. Mark simply mentions it as a fact.

Crucifixion was not invented by the Romans, but the perfected this method of execution into the most horrible of deaths. They called it the “extreme penalty,” and “the humiliation.” It was reserved for the lower classes of their society, the conquered peoples who were not citizens. The Romans considered it too degrading for a Roman, reserved only for those citizens who had committed treason or fled in battle. There are several examples of this in Jewish history.

  • Jews who resisted Antiochus IV Epiphanies (167-164 B.C.) were crucified (Antiq. 12.5.4). Alexander Janneus, the Hasmonean high priest, executed 800 political opponents (many were likely Pharisees, Antiq. 13.14.2).
  • In 4 B.C. the Roman general Varus lined the road from Sepphoris to Galilee with 2000 crucified Jewish rebels (War 2.5.2, Antiq. 17.10.10). The procurator Tiberius Alexander ( A.D. 46-48) crucified the sons of Judas the Galilean (Antiq. 20.5.2).
  • In the Jewish War in A.D. 66 the Roman procurator Gessius Florus executed Jewish soldiers who refused to fight against Jews (War 2.14.9) and Titus crucified captives opposite the walls of Jerusalem (War 5.6.5, 5.11.1).

That Jesus was crucified would have been offensive to Jew and Gentile. The Romans considered talk of a cross or the executioner who preformed the crucifixion to be disgraceful, unworthy of a Roman citizen. The death of crucifixion was sadistic and cruel and was intended to keep the lower classes in their place and to keep subjected peoples from rebelling.

To the Jew, anyone killed by crucifixion was under the curse. The Old Testament said that anything that was hung on a tree was cursed (Deut 21:22-23). It was the ultimate insult to the Jew of the first century to be told that not only did the Messiah come and they did not recognize him, but that he had been crucified as a common criminal.

To the Greek, the death of Jesus on the cross was foolishness. The Greeks were civilized, believing in beauty and truth. To glorify the mangled body of Jesus on the cross was intellectually insulting to the worldview of  the Greek thinker.

What is the point of the Cross?  Jesus is executed as a rebel against Rome.  He would not have been thought to be a righteous martyr, but a failed prophet, a deceiver who was leading people in a rebellion against Rome.  Clearly he was not God, nor was he approved of by God.  This death is a humiliation such that no one in the first century would be drawn to Jesus as a religious leader let alone a savior. If death on the cross was such a confirmation for people living in the first century that Jesus was not at all who he claimed to be, what did God intend by choosing this sort of death for Jesus?

The answer is to be found in the resurrection.  The Roman, Greek and Jewish perceptions of what Jesus’ death meant are totally reversed in what happened three days later.  The humiliation of the cross makes the vindication of the resurrection even more spectacular.

John 19:18 – “They Crucified Him…”

There is no description of the actual crucifixion in John’s gospel. John simply states that “they crucified Jesus” along with two others. In fact, there is no description of crucifixion in any of the four gospels! This stands in contrast to most modern presentations of crucifixion, which seem intent on the gory details. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is a prime example of using shock and gore in depicting Jesus’ execution. I find it rather disturbing when well-meaning Christians attempt to following their Lord by hammering nails into their flesh.  This totally misses the point of the crucifixion and alienates people who do not understand the point of such self-mutilations.  The gospel writers were more interested in why Jesus died, rather than how the Romans tortured him.

Crucifixion was not invented by the Romans, but they perfected it as a method of execution for rebels against the empire. They called it the “extreme penalty” or “the humiliation.” It was typically reserved for the lower classes, especially  conquered peoples. The Romans considered crucifixion too degrading for a Roman citizen, so it was only used to punish   citizens who had committed treason or fled in battle. This sadistic death was the death that Jesus endured. He voluntarily submitted to a death on a cross, and all of the beatings and insults that were a part of the process. He went willingly because he knew that by his death he might bring life into the world.

The Jews knew well the punishment of crucifixion. Jews who resisted Antiochus IV Epiphanies (167-164 B.C.) were crucified (Antiq. 12.5.4). Alexander Janneus, the Hasmonean high priest, executed 800 political opponents (many were likely pharisees, Antiq. 13.14.2). In 4 B.C. the Roman general Varus lined the road from Sepphoris to Galilee with 2000 crucified Jewish rebels (War 2.5.2, Antiq. 17.10.10). A bit later in the first century the procurator Tiberius Alexander (A.D. 46-48) crucified the sons of Judas the Galilean (Antiq. 20.5.2).

That Jesus was crucified would have been offensive to Jew and Gentile. If the leader of one’s religion executed in this way, it would seem to be proof that your religion was flawed! The Romans considered talk of a cross to be impolite. One did not describe the process or talk about the details. Since death by crucifixion was intentionally sadistic and cruel, it was simply not a appropriate topic for conversation. It was an extreme punishment meant to keep conquered people in their place.

To the Jew, anyone killed by crucifixion was under the curse. The Old Testament said that anything that was hung on a tree was cursed (Deut 21:22-23). It was the ultimate insult to the Jew of the first century to be told that not only did the Messiah come and they did not recognize him, but that he had been crucified as a common criminal. Christianity was blasphemy to the Jew.

To the Greek, the death of Jesus on the cross was foolishness. It was strange to think that the true God of the universe might take human form, but it was folly to think that when he did take human form, he was killed. And worse, he allowed himself to be killed! Christianity is a strange religion in that it worships a God who willingly sacrificed himself.

I think that the Cross must be central to Christian preaching, but we must follow the Gospels and emphasize why Jesus died, not how.  The scandal of the cross is not the violence of the act, but the subversiveness of God making the ultimate sacrifice to atone for sin.