This volume is the re-publication of an excerpt from The Crucifixion of Jesus (Fortress Press, 1995) by Gerard Sloyan, professor emeritus of religion at Temple University and past president of both the Catholic Biblical Association and the College Theology Society. Edited for the general reader, discussion questions have been added.
The book comprises an introduction and three main chapters that are entitled: The Crucifixion of Jesus: How, Why, and by Whom?; How Jesus' Death Came to be Seen as Redemptive; and How Jesus' Death Was Blamed on "the Jews." Regarding the historical facts and circumstances that explain Jesus' death, Sloyan considers the gospels to be unreliable accounts that tend to put the Jewish persecutors of the Christian community in a bad light. He states: "They meant to write a theologically interpreted history of the events and ended by writing what was taken for literal history, a history all but impossible to reconstruct with precision, however much individual details can be verified or declared probable."(61) Though Sloyan acknowledges a role of the Temple officials in the arrest of Jesus, he places the primary onus for Jesus' death on Pilate's fear of Jesus as a political instigator. Is it not curious, then, that the Romans did not attempt to arrest and execute his closest followers?
In the second chapter, Sloyan argues that the practice of temple sacrifice is the most likely source for the early and pervasive Christian conviction that Jesus' death served as an atonement for sin. He argues that "attributing an expiatory purpose to Jesus' death by his own expressed intent does not, in any case, seem to be grounded in any Gospel text."(80) However, within the context of early Jewish eschatology, there was a belief that Israel would have to suffer through a period of tribulation before the coming of the Reign of God. Recent research on the Dead Sea Scrolls indicates a belief that sufferings would atone for sin; one text even states that the Messiah would atone for sin when he comes. Pace Sloyan, it is highly plausible that texts like Mark 10:45 (the "ransom for many") and even more Jesus' actions at the Last Supper indicate that he viewed his death as an atoning sacrifice, a New Passover, in which he took upon himself the sins of the people. How could any first century Jew see anything but sacrifice in the language of offering one's "body" and "blood" in the context of Passover? Several prominent N.T. scholars including Albert Schweitzer, Ben F. Meyer and, most recently, N.T. Wright have argued that Jesus did in fact view his death as having an atoning significance and that this was a crucial aspect of his mission. See Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God (1996): "Jesus intended that his death should in some sense function sacrificially..." (604-5).
In the third chapter, Sloyan reviews a selection of writings by prominent early Christian writers including Augustine that fueled the tragic and unjust stigmatization of the Jewish people as collective Christ killers. This chapter will prove useful for combating this pernicious mentality.
Though lacking an index, there are endnotes and suggestions for further reading. With two exceptions, titles published since 1995 are limited to Fortress Press publications. Raymond Brown's magisterial work on the passion is not mentioned. This volume is lucidly written and contains useful information. However, it does not take account of significant N.T. scholarship bearing upon the redemptive understanding of Jesus' death.