To return to those tricky Markan passages, few passages have caused theologians such difficulty as Jesus’ last dying words in Mark (and Matthew). For trinitarian Christians, it seems to be beyond paradoxical for God the Father to forsake God the Son on the cross. Before I look at how exegetes or systematic theologians have dealt with the passage, first I want to look at a few examples of the role it has played in popular Christian worship songs.
Although both songs are surprisingly packed in with a lot of theology when one compares them to much of contemporary popular Christian music, they both read what transpired at the crucifixion through a particular lens. Specifically, the songs seem to advocate a penal substitution view where Jesus took on the sins of the world upon himself and became the recipient of divine wrath and the Father literally “turned his face away.” Since my area of expertise is not in systematic theology I welcome the contributions of theologians in the comments section (do you believe this was a literal separation of Father and Son or more how Jesus felt with raw human emotion and, if the former, how does that not affect the unity of the Trinity or slide into tritheism? – Update: for a canonical-systematic theological treatment of the issue check out this book review by Abram K-J). However, while I believe this later theological reflection is perfectly legitimate, I also think if we want to try to get at how Mark would have been heard by its intended audience we need to be careful to not impose later categories from Nicea when doing exegesis. So just some notes…
- In Mark 15:34 Jesus cries out “E’lo-i, E’lo-i, lema sabachthani?’ (ελωι ελωι λεμα σαβαχθανι) which Mark translates “my God, my God why have you forsaken me.” The mocking bystanders mishear this as a cry for Elijah, assuming Jesus was invoking the eschatological coming of Elijah (cf. Mal 4:5) to deliver him. Those without ears to hear sets up another scene of Markan irony, for Elijah had already come (John the Baptist) and they mistakenly believe that if Jesus really was special he would be divinely rescued from the cross.
- Matthew 27:46 changes Jesus address from Aramaic to Hebrew (ηλι ηλι) (eli, eli), perhaps to make it easier to see the confusion about Elijah (?), but retains the translation that Jesus cries out about being forsaken by God. Yet Luke omits the line and puts in its place a much more trusting sentiment as Jesus commits his spirit to God (Lk 23:46). John may or may not know Mark but he also does not have the words, opting instead for Jesus to announce that it has been accomplished (John 19:30). The Akhmim fragment (Gos Peter?), which again is widely debated if it is dependent on the Synoptics Passion Narrative or develops shared oral/written traditions in its own way, has Jesus cry “my power, you have forsaken me” (5:19). This may be seen as docetic (i.e. Jesus only “seemed” human) (see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.12.1-6 on bishop Serapion’s later judgment on it) or fits in with the complaints of some heresiologists about groups who divide the spiritual Christ from the human Jesus, yet ”power” may also just be a circumlocution for “God.”
- This leads to the last question. Do you think in Mark this should be interpreted as another cry of an innocent victim facing the horrors of crucifixion and lamenting about how God has abandoned him to this fate? Or do you think this should be interpreted with reference to the Psalm as a whole, where Mark intends Jesus to have fulfilled the entire pattern of the Psalm of the innocent righteous one who will be vindicated in the end?