There are scenes in the Bible that cause a visceral reaction for even the most disinterested reader. As we view the Garden of Gethsemane in our mind’s eye, we see one of Jesus’ closest companions, Judas Iscariot, leading a band of men. He smiles broadly, “Rabbi!,” greeting Jesus with a kiss. The kiss, that universal sign of intimacy and affection, lands on Jesus like a knife twisting in the back.
Even though it is a stock feature of literature, cinema, and life, like those passing by a car wreck, we can’t seem to avert our eyes when we see betrayal — even when its appearance is an unsurprising cliché. But as cold-hearted as Judas’ kiss might be, it is not the kiss that causes chills. It is Jesus’ response, “Friend, do what you came to do” (Matt. 26:50). The traitor is embraced as friend, and Jesus urges Judas to complete the betrayal, even though he knows the agony of the cross awaits.
A couple scenes later we find ourselves riveted by betrayal once more. As his limbs are stretched on the cross, Jesus flings out the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). We stare in fascinated horror. Surely God has not gone the way of Judas? Even if Jesus’ words are not themselves accusatory, we cannot seem to avoid sitting in the judge’s seat, while we place God in the dock. A weight of unfairness, of divine unfairness, is heavy in the air.
If God, the one Jesus called Abba-Father, truly did forsake Jesus — the Greek verb in question, enkataleipō (Hebrew = ʿāzab; Aramaic = šābaq), entails active and intentional movement away from — then why would the Father abandon the Son at his moment of sharpest need? Was it a final test of the Son’s obedience? An excruciating but essential self-emptying for the Son? Could it be that the holy Father could not stand to gaze upon the Son as he carried the ugly sin of the world? Reinforced by lines such as “the Father turns his face away” in popular hymnody, the latter remains a common explanation among professional scholars and pew-filling Christians. For theologian Jürgen Moltmann in his The Crucified God, this abandonment is a genuine, radical separation between the Father and the Son in which God ultimately forsakes his very self. According to Moltmann, in so doing God is able to take creaturely suffering into his own divine self-life, to suffer alongside creation. Yet these theological speculations assume rather than prove that God truly did temporarily forsake Jesus. In light of evidence in the Gospels that Jesus knew that the Father would not abandon him (John 16:32) and that he would rescue him on the other side of the grave (Luke 9:22; 13:32; 17:4–5; 18: 33 and parallels), perhaps we are justified in searching for a different solution.
As we investigate the scene of the divine treason more carefully, our impression that this is betrayal begins to melt away as we read the Jewish Scripture, the Christian Old Testament. For Jesus is not giving a spontaneous accusation, but is uttering the first lines of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Could it be that Jesus was voicing his feelings of despair even while expressing hope — that Jesus was entering a well-rehearsed script, beginning a theodramatic performance? Although the point has been under-appreciated among scholars and theologians, this is precisely how the earliest Christians who interpreted Psalm 22 seem to have understood it: the Gospel-writers, the author of Hebrews, Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, and others.
That is, Jesus and others seem to have believed that David as the inspired author of a psalm could slip into an alternative guise, adopt a different person, and speak as that person (cf. esp. Acts 2:30–31; Justin 1 Apol. 36.1–2). For instance, when Jesus interprets Psalm 110 (in Mark 12:35–37 and parallels), he points out that David is not God’s ultimate dialogue partner with respect to the words, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet,’” because the person addressed by God is described as “my Lord” by David. Jesus carefully points out that David said these words while speaking “by the Holy Spirit” (Mark 12:36), which I believe (in conjunction with other evidence) suggests that Jesus was focused on David’s prophetic ability to adopt a different “person” as the Holy Spirit supplied the script to be performed. If this is the case, then Jesus seems to have made intriguing proto-Trinitarian assumptions in his interpretation of what Christians call the Old Testament. For Jesus, a Father-Son-Spirit script was written by the prophets long ago in anticipation of his own future actualizing performance. Many other examples in which Jesus and others use this theodramatic reading technique (prosopological exegesis) could be adduced.
So if for Jesus, David spoke the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1) from the person of the Christ, and Jesus understood himself to be the Christ who was now incarnating the script, then what did Jesus think the performance would entail? And how would it end? The psalm itself gives the story. The mocking crowd would appear, sneering, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the chosen one!” (Luke 23:35) and “He trusts in God; let God rescue him now, if he wants him!” (Matt. 27:43; cf. Ps. 22:8; 1 Clem. 16.15–16). The words, “they divided my clothes among themselves, and for my garment they cast lots” (Ps. 22:18) would come to pass (Mark 15: 24 and parallels; cf. John 19:24), as would other specific details, “my tongue is stuck fast in my throat” and “they pierced my hands and my feet” (Ps. 22:15-16).
Yet this would not be the end of the story. Jesus would be rescued (cf. Ps. 22:21 with Ps. 22:22). And this rescue allowed the Christ to say, “I will tell your name to my brothers; I will sing your praise in the midst of the assembly. You who fear the Lord, praise him! . . . he did not turn his face away from me, and when I cried to him, he heard me” (Ps. 22:22–24). We find an echo of this in Hebrews (paraphrasing):
Jesus (speaking to God the Father): “I, Jesus, will proclaim your name, O my Father, to my brothers, in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” (Heb. 2:11–12 citing Ps. 22:22)
Indeed as Jesus leads the congregation in acclaiming God, the circle of praise widens so that not just Israel, but “the ends of the earth” and “all the families of the nations” worship God (Ps. 22:27).
Just as with Judas’s betrayal, I find myself gazing in fascination at Jesus’ words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This time I stare because what appears to be a betrayal is not one at all, but rather the start of a Trinitarian theodramatic performance rooted in the psalter. Jesus, the forsaken one, is rescued, and Jesus through the Spirit lauds God the Father in ever-expanding circles of praise.
*Note: all translations follow the Greek text of the Scripture as this reflects the usage of the earliest extant Christian authors.
Featured image credit: ‘it is finished’ by Leslie Richards, CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr