What Did Jesus Do? Reading and unreading the Gospels

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:


Verhoeven, citing Crossan, offers an opening scene for a Jesus bio-pic which neatly underlines this point. He imagines a man being nailed to a cross, cries of agony, two companion crosses in view, and then we crane out to see two hundred crosses and two hundred victims: we are at the beginning of the story, the mass execution of Jewish rebels in 4 B.C., not the end. This was the Roman death waiting for rebels from the outset, and Jesus knew it. Jesus’ cry of desolation—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—though primly edited out or explained as an apropos quotation from the Psalms by later evangelists, pierces us even now from the pages of Mark, across all the centuries and Church comforts. The shock and pity of failure still resonates.

One thing, at least, the cry assures: the Jesus faith begins with a failure of faith. His father let him down, and the promise wasn’t kept. “Some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God,” Jesus announced; but none of them did. Jesus, and Paul following him, says unambiguously that whatever is coming is coming soon—that the end is very, very near. It wasn’t, and the whole of what follows is built on an apology for what went wrong. The seemingly modern waiver, “Well, I know he said that, but he didn’t really mean it quite the way it sounded,” is built right into the foundation of the cult. The sublime symbolic turn—or the retreat to metaphor, if you prefer—begins with the first words of the faith. If the Kingdom of God proved elusive, he must have meant that the Kingdom of God was inside, or outside, or above, or yet to come, anything other than what the words seem so plainly to have meant.

More here.