18 April 2019

“My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Mark 15.33-36, Matthew 27.45-49.

Before he died, Jesus shouted out something in a language his bystanders didn’t recognize. And a lot of present-day commentators don’t recognize it either. We know it was Psalm 22.1, but some of us say Jesus quoted it in Aramaic; some say Hebrew. Which was it?

The reason for the confusion is that Mark and Matthew don’t match. Both of ’em recorded Jesus’s words as best they could—but they did so in the Greek alphabet, which doesn’t correspond neatly to Hebrew and Aramaic sounds. So here’s what we got. (And if your web browser reads Unicode, you might actually see the original-language characters.)

Ps 22.1, Hebrew אֵלִ֣י אֵלִ֣י לָמָ֣ה עֲזַבְתָּ֑נִי Elí Elí, lamá azavettáni?
Ps 22.1, Aramaic (Syriac) ܐܠܗ ܐܠܗܝ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢ Elahí Elahí, lamaná šavaqtaní?
Mk 15.34, Greekἐλωΐ ἐλωΐ, λεμᾶ σαβαχθανί;Elo’í Elo’í, lemá savahthaní?
(or σαβακτανεί/savaktaneí in the Codex Sinaiticus.)
Mt 27.46, Greekἠλί ἠλί, λεμὰ σαβαχθανί;Ilí ilí, lemá savahthaní?

Just based on how the gospels’ authors wrote the word for “my God,” Elí in Hebrew or Elahí in Aramaic, it kinda looks like Mark was quoting an Aramaic translation of the psalms, and Matthew the Hebrew original.

But it seems to me the most likely Jesus would quote bible in Hebrew. For three reasons:

  1. That is the language King David wrote his psalm in.
  2. It’d explain why the people who heard Jesus quote it, didn’t understand him. Judeans and Galileans spoke Aramaic; that’s what the New Testament meant by Ἑβραϊστί/Evrahistí and Ἑβραΐδι/Evra’ídi, “Hebraic.” Jn 5.2, Ac 22.2, 26.14, Rv 9.11 In the first century Hebrew was a dead language, only spoken by scribes like Jesus.
  3. It’s way easier to confuse Elí with Ἡλίας/Ilías, the Greek version of אֵלִיָּה/Eliyyáhu, “Elijah,” than it is Elahí.

Regardless, in my translation the words in Jesus’s mouth are Aramaic in Mark, and Hebrew in Matthew. ’Cause that’s what the authors were apparently going for.

Mark 15.33-36 KWL
33 When the sixth hour since sunrise—noon—came,
darkness came over all the land till the ninth hour.
34 At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, Elahí Elahí, lamaná šavaqtáni?
which is translated, “My God my God, for what reason have you left me behind?” Ps 22.1
35 Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “Look: He calls Elijah.”
36 One of the runners, filling a sponge of vinegar, putting it on a reed, gave Jesus a drink,
saying, “Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him.”
Matthew 27.45-49 KWL
45 From the sixth hour since sunrise—noon—
darkness came over all the land until the ninth hour.
46 Around the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, Elí Elí, lamáh azavettáni?
That is, “My God my God, why did you leave me behind?” Ps 22.1
47 Some of the bystanders who heard it said this: “This man calls Elijah.”
48 One runner quickly left them: Taking a sponge full of vinegar, putting it on a reed, he gave Jesus a drink.
49 The others said, “Let’s see if Elijah comes, and will save him.”

Awright, now that we have the language sorta squared away, let’s get to what was going on here.

Why the quote?

By this point, Jesus had spent the past six hours in agony on the cross. Crucifixion hurts, doesn’t get any easier over time, and wasn’t meant to.

During that time, he had to put up with the mockery of passers-by, and of the priests and scribes who sentenced him to death:

Matthew 27.39-43 KWL
39 The passers-by slandered Jesus, shaking their heads at him,
40 saying, “Destroying the temple and building it in three days? Save yourself!
If you’re God’s son, come down from the cross.”
41 The head priests likewise, mocking Jesus with the scribes and elders, saying:
42 “He saved others. He can’t save himself. He’s Israel’s king?
He has to come down from the cross now, and we’ll trust him.
43 He follows God? God has to rescue him now, if he wants him—for he said ‘I’m God’s son.’ ”

Jesus, who knows his scriptures better than we do, immediately recognized they were fulfilling this bit of the scriptures:

Psalm 22.7-8 KWL
7 All who see me, mock me. They shake their heads, open-mouthed:
8 “He committed to the LORD? God should help him escape.
God should snatch him away, for God delights in him!”

Certain translators, recognizing the priests’ mockery was darned near quoting David ben Jesse, render that passage almost as if the priests were deliberately quoting the psalm.

Matthew 27.42-43 Amplified
42 “He saved others [from death]; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him and acknowledge Him. 43 HE TRUSTS IN GOD; LET GOD RESCUE Him now, IF HE DELIGHTS IN HIM; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ”

But I’m pretty sure the priests didn’t have that much presence of mind as to what they were doing. I mean, if they had—if they were deliberately twisting the scriptures so they could make fun of Jesus with them—it’d mean they didn’t have any respect for the scriptures, nor the God who inspired them either. Not for nothing did Jesus point out they risked blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

In any event, Jesus called them on it. They may not have realized they were quoting Psalm 22, but Jesus straight-up said “Psalm 22.” But not in those words, ’cause the psalms didn’t yet have numbers. (Nor verses.) The way you referred to a psalm was to quote its first line… and that line was… well, I’ll just quote the first few verses.

Psalm 22.1-6 KWL
1 My God my God, why did you leave me so far from saving, from my roaring words?
2 My God, I call by day and you don’t answer; by night and I’m not silent.
3 You’re holy. You dwell on Israel’s praises.
4 Our ancestors trusted you. They trusted and you helped them escape.
5 They shrieked to you and slipped away. They were unashamedly confident in you.
6 I’m a maggot, not a man. Humanity’s disgrace, the people’s scorn.

Mark has him quote it in Aramaic, for everybody to understand; Matthew has him quote it in Hebrew, so only priests and scribes would know what he was saying.

And almost immediately, people misunderstood. Either because they didn’t care to recognize they’d been fulfilling the psalm… or, which seems likely, Jesus was surrounded by Greek-speakers who didn’t understand a word of what he just said.

People still misunderstand. Christians commonly think Jesus quoted Psalm 22 because he felt he fulfilled it; that he felt abandoned by God. John Calvin once wrote Jesus must’ve certainly felt like his Father was far, far away from him; so the quote must’ve felt appropriate. But Calvin, like so many Christians before and since, was simply imagining how he’d feel on the cross, and projecting it on Jesus. Far easier to do that, than learn Jesus’s cultural context.

But back to the first century. The bystanders were looking for any reason to make fun, so they glommed onto the idea Jesus was shouting for Elijah. ’Cause according to Pharisee beliefs about the End Times, Elijah was supposed to come back down from heaven before Messiah appeared, and reveal him to the world. Mt 17.10, Mk 9.11 Which, if you realize John the baptist fulfilled this idea, Mt 17.13 already happened. But the bystanders didn’t know this. To their minds—much like Albert Schweitzer speculated 19 centuries later—Jesus was screaming in despair for Elijah because things weren’t happening at all the way he expected.

The Father turned his face away?

Another popular theory about why Jesus quoted the psalm, is the idea Jesus’s passion created a split in the trinity: That because Jesus took on the sins of humanity at the cross, and because God can’t abide sin, the Father had to separate himself from the Son. That the reason Jesus screamed out, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Mk 15.34 KJV is because at that moment the Father had forsaken him. He could look at his Son no longer. So much for his promise, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” He 12.5 KJV

As theologian Wayne Grudem put it in his Systematic Theology:

But far worse than desertion by even the closest of human friends was the fact that Jesus was deprived of the closeness to the Father that had been the deepest joy of his heart for all his earthly life. When Jesus cried out “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mt 27.46 he showed that he was finally cut off from the sweet fellowship with his heavenly Father that had been the unfailing source of his inward strength and the element of greatest joy in a life filled with sorrow. As Jesus bore our sins on the cross, he was abandoned by his heavenly Father, who is “of purer eyes than to behold evil.” Hk 1.13 He faced the weight of the guilt of millions of sins alone. Grudem 574

Thing is, this idea is heresy. The reason I say so is because the creeds make it clear the trinity is unsplittable. The Son is “of one being with the Father.” We’re not talking two guys who get along most of the time, but sometimes go their own way; we’re talking one God. You split the trinity, you get two gods. Or three. Like I said, heresy.

Even though Jesus bore our sins He 9.28 on the cross, he did so in obedience to the Father’s plan to save the world. Which is just as much his plan.

Those folks who insist the psalm implies God forsook Jesus? They really oughta read the rest of the psalm.

Psalm 22.22-24 KWL
22 I celebrate your name with my brothers, and praise you in the middle of the assembly.
23 You who respect the LORD: Praise him! All Jacob’s seed, honor him! All Israel’s seed, abide in him!
24 For God doesn’t scorn, doesn’t flinch, from the suffering of sufferers.
He doesn’t hide his face from them. They cry to God, and he hears!

David may have felt forsaken, but he knew from experience God doesn’t abandon us. Certainly not when we’re obediently following him; definitely not at our lowest point. And who fits this description better than Jesus?

I’ve learned from long experience any time Grudem teaches something iffy, look up his proof-texts. Dude has no respect for bible when there’s another idea he likes better. Here he quotes Habakkuk’s statement that God’s “of purer eyes than to behold evil.” Hk 1.13 KJV But again, folks, context.

Habakkuk 1.13 ESV
You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?

I quoted the English Standard Version instead of my own translation ’cause Grudem was one of the main advocates for this translation, and is the general editor of its study bible. (Because the NRSV was too gender-inclusive for his liking.) So he oughta be aware of the rest of the verse he misquoted, because it in fact says the very opposite of what he claims. Habakkuk’s complaint was the LORD should be too righteous to tolerate evil—and yet there are plenty of evildoers in the world. It not only doesn’t say God can’t abide sin: It’s a complaint that he does. God’s response was he won’t forever. Hk 2 Still, he proves a lot more gracious than we are.

And really that’s the reason Christians teach this heretic idea of the Father abandoning the Son: If they were God, that’s how they’d behave. They lack grace, so their concept of God lacks grace. They would forsake the sinner; God still wants to save ’em. They would be so legalistic about forsaking the sinner, they’d forsake Jesus himself on a technicality. Thank God he’s not like that at all. We cry to God, as David said, and he hears. He totally heard Jesus. He’ll hear you too.

But to be fair, some of ’em aren’t that heartless, and are only repeating what they heard, ’cause they never double-checked it against the scriptures. I mean, it sounds shocking: The Father would separate himself from the Son? He must hate sin so much. And yes, God’s absolutely anti-sin. But his mercy is far greater than his judgment. His love is greater than his outrage. We too should emphasize forgiveness over punishment. Exactly like our Father.