The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem
A review of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan's, "The Last Week," by Dr. William Klein.
Borg, Marcus, and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week. A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. xii + 220 pp. Hardback, $21.95. ISBN: 0-06-084539-2.
Two premier New Testament scholars who have specialized in historical Jesus studies (they are members of the Jesus Seminar) join their efforts to produce a stimulating account of Jesus’ final days. They make a methodological decision in how they will proceed: rather than attempt a historical reconstruction of what actually happened during those days, they aim to unpack the significance of Mark’s rendition of Holy Week. Starting with Palm Sunday, they continue a chapter a day until Easter, engaging in their analysis of Mark’s story against the backdrop of the first-century world in which these momentous events occurred.
The obvious strength of this book lies in the authors’ combined knowledge and expertise surrounding the Roman world and Palestine in particular in the first century AD. They make a convincing case that Jesus and the “powers that be” were on a collision course right from the beginning. Jesus’ insistence on embodying God’s justice for all people inevitably and violently clashed with the religious-political system headquartered in Jerusalem. Though legitimized by the dominant religious structure and language, this system promoted oppression and economic exploitation. Jesus and Jerusalem would eventually come to blows, and Pilate would oversee the match.
While explaining Mark’s story, the authors fill the readers in on other important background matters that help us understand Jesus’ actions on each day. We see the combined impact of the Romans, the Herods, and the Temple-dominated religious hierarchy. They explain the meaning of blood sacrifice in Jewish religion and the importance of the Passover for the Jews. They paint a picture of the ambiguous role of the Jewish high priest. They unpack the origin and significance of many of Jesus’ sayings, confrontations, and actions during the week. They helpfully explain why first-century women would be so attracted to Jesus: “Jesus and earliest Christianity gave to women an identity and status that they did not experience within the conventional wisdom of the time” (p. 152). Borg and Crossan are clearly at their best in helping modern readers grasp the importance of the events of the week as told by Mark.
While readers can applaud the significant light that Borg and Crossan shed on these chapters from Mark’s gospel, a fundamental discontinuity will trouble many of them. One encounters statements like the following on many pages: “Whether this kind of eschatology goes back to Jesus himself is a separate question. We do not think that it does. We see it as most likely a post-Easter creation of the early Christian movement” (p. 83). In other words, Borg and Crossan remind us that this is Mark’s story of Jesus’ final week; this does not mean that these events actually happened.
On a parallel disquieting note, they remark that while Mark was certainly wrong in his expectation that Jesus’ return was imminent–that is, it did not happen–we may perceive a deeper meaning in that misguided expectation: Jesus will triumph despite the world’s resistance. Borg and Crossan’s view of the resurrection accounts will be most troubling to traditional Christian interpreters. They take the “historical reports” of the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection to be the language of parable and metaphor, not that of historical facts.
They go so far as to say, “Believe whatever you want about whether the stories happened this way–now let’s talk about what they mean” (p. 193). It strikes me that this might be a tolerable strategy for interpreting the book of Jonah. Let’s say there was not big fish after all. In either case what role does the fish play in the narrative?
But if Jesus did not physically rise from the dead, then whatever resurrection means, we can’t reliably infer that we will physically rise from the dead. Of course, we can’t make the resurrection of Jesus factual simply by believing that it occurred. But I think the historical evidence is convincing enough unless one is predisposed to reject supernatural occurrences. It’s truly sad how little meaning Borg and Crossan can extract from Mark’s story of resurrection as parable (see p. 197). When they add the evidence from the other gospels, they do come up with more trenchant conclusions (pp. 204-5), though they curiously exclude the promise of our physical resurrection–just as I suspected would have to be the case.
Some readers will also be surprised at the vehemence with which the authors attack and reject the theological view that the atonement was substitutionary. Despite its presence and significance in the church’s liturgy and historical understanding, Borg and Crossan reject the tenet of Jesus’ vicarious atonement and the motif of God as judge who exacts payment for sin. They are extraneous beliefs that have no currency in Mark’s story.
In their place Borg and Crossan aver that Mark’s view of the atonement is only participatory. That is, Jesus does not die in our place; we participate in Jesus’ death. This is an odd conclusion given Mark’s clear explanation: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The way they sidestep the implications of this verse is unconvincing. Probably this is a clear case for both/and: Jesus both died for us, and we participate in the benefits of that sacrifice.
It’s also puzzling to imagine what the authors assume they have gained in taking such pains to argue “that the substitutionary sacrificial understanding of Jesus’s death is not there at all in Mark” (p. 139). Even if they are correct (though I’m not convinced), is Mark’s silence to be construed as his denial of the doctrine? Are Borg and Crossan prepared to say, therefore, that the doctrine itself should be excised from Christian theology simply because Mark does not defend it? This is very curious.
So what then is the significance of Jesus’ death according to Borg and Crossan? Here it is: “Mark understands Jesus’s death as a judgment on the authorities and the temple” (p. 155). That’s it! One wonders what would be Mark’s point if that’s all that Jesus’ death accomplished. Is Mark’s point only, as our authors suggest, that Jesus, not Caesar, is God’s Son? That’s true, of course, but I think it to be so much more.
Another curious statement: “There is no uninterpreted account of the death of Jesus in the New Testament” (p. 141). From this apparently innocuous observation, they conclude that we can’t trust the details of the accounts; after all, they’re all interpreted. That’s like saying because three witnesses give their interpretations of a car accident, that we can’t trust that any of the details they report actually happened. According to Borg and Crossan, Mark has injected details of post-Easter thinking back in to the story–to accomplish what, one wonders. Thus the Barabbas incident is fictional–surely the Roman would not employ this tactic. The darkness coming on Jerusalem while Jesus hangs on the cross is symbolic: “The cosmos itself joins in mourning what is happening” (p. 149). Which of the events can we trust to be factual?
Because Borg and Crossan push the envelope in so many ways, conservative readers might adopt a completely negative posture to the book, and that would be a mistake. Certainly there are many points that one might quibble with. Their take on Jesus’ descent into hell and their interpretations of 1 Peter 3:18-19 and 4:6 are very questionable, in my view.
Yet their questions and objections to some traditional viewpoints can push us to think through the historical evidence and the assumptions we embrace too uncritically. I think it’s useful to consider our reactions to statements such as this one: “Was the death of Jesus the will of God? No. It is never the will of God that a righteous man be crucified” (p. 161). Did Good Friday have to happen? Was it a divine necessity or a human inevitability?
We do well, also, to consider seriously some important implications about the significance of Easter that Borg and Crossan raise for Christians today. We should think about the personal implications of Easter, or as they put it, “the path to a transformed self. The path involves dying to an old way of being and being reborn into a new way of being” (p. 210). Likewise, “The political meaning of Good Friday and Easter sees the human problem as injustice, and the solution as God’s justice” (p. 211). That is, Jesus’ passion for justice got him killed. Will we become so passionate to see God’s justice prevail that the ‘powers that be’ might kill us? While Borg and Crossan do not discount the importance of the question, Do you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior? they insist we ask a second one: Do you accept Jesus as your political Lord and Savior? (p. 215).
William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament