Friday, December 1, 2017

The Crucifixion as Icon

Native American artist Poteet Victory’s recent work, "The Crucifixion" is one of the most modern paintings of an ancient icon. Reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross as well as Mel Gibson’s cinematic recreation of God’s heavenly eye-view of Jesus’ crucifixion on earth, Poteet’s haunting image of Jesus floating above an ethereal blue skyscape bears witness to what once seemed obvious to Christian faithful: that they could be confident that they shared God’s view of the crucifixion as seen from above . . . 

People see different things in the Crucifixion of Jesus based on their different worldview(s). Whether as visual icon or historical datum, the Crucifixion now lends itself to multiple narratives and interpretations. Christian faithful see a blood sacrifice “for our sins,” the ultimate "end of sacrifice" that replaces the Temple cult. Alternatively, the true meaning of the crucifixion could be seen as an esoteric demonstration of Jesus’ non-physical reality, as in gnostic worldviews, both ancient and modernMore recently, different Mythicist proposals picture the Crucifixion of a celestial Jesus in “outer space.” Historians see a conflict of interests, political conspiracy and assassination. The Crucifixion is inextricably linked to Jesus’ relationship to the Temple, one of the most intractable problems in Jesus Research, as I discuss in my book, Jesus and the Temple: The Crucifixion in its Jewish Context. While Jesus probably objected to economic corruption in the administration of the Temple, it is also possible to see Jesus on the cross as the evidentiary basis for portraying Jesus as a "revolutionary" figure.

The Crucifixion is historical Jesus bedrock. That is, in part, why it can be interpreted in so many different ways. It is difficult to deny that it happened. It is more difficult to explain why it happened. It is even more difficult to explain what, if anything, it means. This is where things get interesting. Let us take, for example, the Seditious Jesus theory. It has taken a number of forms, but a good case can be made that Jesus was rebellious and revolutionary based on his crucifixion. The question is whether that means that Jesus really was a political criminal. The question is not whether Jesus ended up being executed for “sedition,” but what brought Jesus to the cross? Here there is no consensus. The Gospels identify Jesus as a divine blood sacrifice opposed by the Jewish religious leaders and executed by Rome. But the fact that Jesus died a violent death does not mean that Jesus lived a violent life. If Jesus said that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt 26:52), then Jesus’ followers certainly “remembered” him as true to his word as one who neither lived nor died by the sword. This doesn't mean Jesus liked Roman rule, but it also doesn’t mean that he led his disciples in armed revolt against it.

There are many ways that a first-century Jew might have ended up on a Roman cross. One of them is angering the religious leaders who collaborated with the Romans. There is little doubt that Jesus was charged with sedition (otherwise he would not have been crucified) and perceived as politically subversive (because he was proclaiming the arrival of a coming “king-dom of God”), but Jesus was also perceived as religiously subversive and may have criticized the economic corruption of the priesthood and their collaboration with Rome. The Romans did not just crucify “seditionists.” The Romans also crucified people for defamation of the emperor, “stirring up the people,” and military desertion. Josephus reports Romans crucifying Jews for no apparent reason at all during the RevoltWhen it comes to the crucifixion of Jesus, there is more than enough blame to go around to shoulder the burden of the cross: Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, the disciples, Satan, God.

By the High Middle Ages, the cross of Christ, symbol of his suffering humanity – like the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem – reflected new interests in imitating Jesus’ earthly suffering. This focus on blood and open wounds and bleeding crosses in dark cathedrals had an inevitable effect on the tradition where it could also be seen as representing the physical misery of earthly existence when the powers-that-be turn brutal and unforgiving. It is no accident of history that many European Jewish artists and writers of the post-Enlightenment, like Marc Chagall (who returned to the Crucifixion of Jesus over and over again throughout his career) began to see the Crucifixion of Jesus as a symbol of their own (peoples’) suffering: Jesus on the Cross in symbolic solidarity with his Jewish people. Jesus dying daily, still crucified by a Christianity that denied his Jewish identity.

For almost two thousand years, the Crucifixion of Jesus was a predominantly Christian symbol. After the Enlightenment, the Crucifixion became a symbol of Jewish suffering. Today the Crucifixion belongs to all of us - a master-Icon, an archetypal image imprinted on the psyche - symbolizing the crucifixion of our very reality, torn between the false dichotomies and binary oppositions of religion and science, faith and reason, history and theology, human and divine, spirit and flesh.

Note: with thanks to Brian Pounds (University of Cambridge) for his work on Roman crucifixion.

Thursday, November 23, 2017


The Lakota (Sioux) word "wakanyeja" means "sacred seed." It is the Lakota word for children. The Lakota language uses the word wakan to describe anything holy, mysterious, powerful, and/or incomprehensible. In Lakota religion, the word wakan refers to the animating life-force of the world, the universe, and the cosmos. It is imperfectly translated as "sacred," even if it is sometimes synonymous with what is generally regarded as "sacred" in the English language. For example, the Lakota word for the English/Christian concept of "God" iWakan Tanka, which is generally translated as "Great Spirit" but more appropriately and accurately understood as "The Great Mystery."  

A Lakota "medicine man" is sometimes called a wicasa wakan, or "holy man" because they represent, utilize, and embody the "mysterious" powers of the spirit world. The Sacred Pipe is called the Chanunpa wakan, because it is the conduit between the natural and the spiritual world(s). The Lakota word for "horse" is sunkawakan or "powerful dog" because it was introduced by the Spanish and dramatically transformed the Lakota way of life. The word wakan can also describe a powerful, but not necessarily benevolent force. For example, the Lakota word for alcohol, mniwakan, refers to how this "powerful water" radically changed how people thought and behaved. The devastating (after-) effects of alcoholism on Indian reservations are well known today and it is the children - so often forgotten - who have to live in the after-life of colonization. Yet their purity and innocence endures in the Lakota word wakanyeja - "mysterious, holy, powerful, incomprehensible, sacred seed" - remembering the purity and innocence of children. 

Please take a moment to look and listen to the beautiful, haunting, melancholy melody of "Wakanyeja" as sung by my brother Tee Iron Cloud which I co-produced for The Mitakuye Foundation and experience the enduring spirit of these "sacred seeds." 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Q as Early Jewish Mystery-Discourse

Looking forward to presenting a paper in the Q section at the annual meeting of the SBL in Boston this year. The title is “‘I Thank You, Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth’ (Q 10:21): Q As Early Jewish Mystery-Discourse.” Here is the Abstract:

Since the late 1950s, Q has been identified as distinctive – a “second sphere” within the early Jesus movement – combining both wisdom and apocalyptic traditions in its Christological conceptualization of Jesus. Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, Q represents a textual-scribal product of Early Judaism reflecting an alternative navigation of disaffiliation with the traditional practices of the Temple cult. This paper explores how Q 10:21, in its direct appeal to the Father, participates in Q’s wider esoteric discourse of hiddenness and disclosure, articulating its “difference” by representing Jesus’ identity, kingdom-vision, end-time revelation, and prayer-instruction as secret mysteries of and for the elect.

Photo: 7Q5 (Qumran Greek papyrus)

Monday, August 21, 2017

Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (SNTS)!


I am honored to learn that I have been nominated and elected a member of the prestigious Society for New Testament Studies (SNTS) this year! Many thanks to Professors James A. Sanders and Dale C. Allison, Jr. for the nomination!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Jesus, the Essenes, and Christian Origins!

I am happy to announce that my new book - Jesus, the Essenes, and Christian Origins - will be published by Baylor University Press next year! This is my most recent work on Christian origins - a topic I have devoted much of my scholarly career to - and this study focuses on the relationship between the Essenes and the historical Jesus, a subject I have been fascinated with since I began graduate work in religion. It also gives me an opportunity to assess and discuss various critical responses to my work over the years. 

Although it has now become something of a truism to say that the study of Christian origins should be framed within Second Temple Judaism (since Jesus and his first followers were Jews), there is no denying that Christian origins also represents a complex, multifaceted, dynamic process of social, cultural, and theological change. In this light, I think Jesus, the Essenes, and Christian Origins breaks new ground in locating and situating the historical Jesus within the context(s) of his "halakhic" discussions while simultaneously exploring how that original cultural matrix developed over the course of the first century to become what is commonly known today as (early) "Christianity."

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Jesus and the Temple - JTS Review

"Joseph argues an intriguing and innovative thesis . . . Joseph's thesis is cogently argued throughout . . . Joseph has performed a helpful service to scholarship in making this innovative and thoughtful proposal. Many will benefit from critically engaging with this volume."

David W. Chapman, Journal of Theological Studies

Friday, August 4, 2017

Jesus and the Temple - JSNT Review

“Joseph demonstrates a remarkable knowledge of the scholarly material, and the erudition on display means that his study will undoubtedly serve as a core resource for all subsequent work on sacrificial imagery in the NT.”

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Jesus and the Temple - JETS Review

"There is much to be commended in this book. Jesus and the Temple is a very readable and well-researched investigation into the circumstances of Jesus's death. The argument is easy to follow, and Joseph's analysis of both the primary and secondary literature is salutary. Even better, Joseph produces a consistent argument . . . an engaging read and one full of tantalizing possibilities. Joseph's arguments deserve to be taken seriously by anyone interested in the study of the historical Jesus and the question of why he died." 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Q, Social Identity, and Apocalyptic Violence in History of Religions!

In the summer of 2009, I presented a paper on the rhetoric of apocalyptic violence in Q during the International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. The meetings were held at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, just down the street from the Trevi Fountain and a short walk from the Pantheon! One of the highlights of the trip was being invited to submit the paper for publication in a special issue on Violence and Identity in History of Religions. Happy to say it just got published ("A Social Identity Approach to the Rhetoric of Apocalyptic Violence in the Sayings Gospel Q")!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

New Article in Harvard Theological Review!

Happy to say that an expanded version of a paper I was invited to give in the Q Section at the annual meeting of the SBL (Atlanta, 2015) will be published in the Harvard Theological Review (2018)! The title is “The Quest for the ‘Community’ of Q: Mapping Q Within the Social, Scribal, and Textual Landscape(s) of Second Temple Judaism.”