July 16, 2003
Hero worship

I finally got to reading (or reading all of) Lynn's take on Telford's comments. It's as good as I expected, and it clarifies a point that I had been thinking in a foggier way. It regards Telford's claim that the apostles could hardly have made up Jesus' predictions of his own death:

These points are more significant. Take, for comparison, this page about gay politician Harvey Milk. It is said of Milk:
Early on in Milk’s career he predicted his own death and said that, “if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

Sure enough, Milk was shot and killed, in 1978, by Dan White. Now, if Milk could see the possibility that he might be killed, and speak to his friends words which they would remember afterwards, and which would say something about the meaning of his death (and I have no reason to doubt the account that Harvey Milk did in fact do this), then, it seems to me, Jesus could well do the same. Likewise, it is said of Martin Luther King:
On April 3, 1968, King gave his famous "mountaintop" sermon in Memphis, in which he predicted his own assassination but showed no fear. Less than 24 hours later, he was dead from a sniper's bullet.

And I certainly have no reason to doubt King's "mountaintop" sermon. So, just evaluating Jesus as "a social prophet who challenged the domination system in the name of God" (as Borg describes him), it seems reasonable that, if he's consistently described as having some idea, as Milk and King did in more modern times, that he would be killed, and as actually saying something ahead of time which put his death in context, that it's not exactly far-fetched to suppose that he did just that.

This is an excellent point, but I have a caveat.

I talked about psychology in a vague way in my last post, but the particular psychological phenomenon that always worries me regarding Jesus research is the personality cult. Judging by examples in my own lifetime, this is especially strong if a leader dies an early, violent death. The followers crave a meaning for the death, even if it's a tragic one.

For instance, as a Gen-Xer I've always been kind of puzzled by the significance baby boomers attach to John F. Kennedy's murder. Any change in the presidency, by whatever means, changes history. But many boomers seem to have made it a cultural turning point: it was the end of American innocence, the start of the '60s, it would all have been better had he lived, etc. Actually, I think the evidence is pretty strong that nothing could have stopped the cultural upheaval throughout the Western world at that time, so the timing was coincidental. But the mythos of the slain young leader is a strong one.

Actually, you don't even have to die that spectacular a death to get that treatment. I wish I had on hand Ron Rosenbaum's terrific article on "Death Week" at Graceland -- it really shows how Elvis Presley's ignominious death has become a central part of his "cult," even though his family tries to discourage such rituals. Indeed, the fans seem to wrest meaning from its very ignominiousness.

Both these examples are quite different from what happened to Jesus, of course. But to me this phenomenon provides a heavy counterweight to Telford's assertion that it would have been amazing if the disciples settled so early on the standard meaning of Jesus' death if Jesus himself hadn't put it forward. Such an event doesn't seem that amazing to me, or even that unusual.

Posted by Camassia at July 16, 2003 11:45 AM | TrackBack

I actually don't see the point of controversy in this part of the discussion. The gospels indicate that Jesus DID predict that he would be killed and did disclose the significance of his death to his closest followers. While we have no direct outside corroboration of this, neither do we have anything that proves it to be false. We do know that Jesus was aware that John the Baptist had recently been executed by Herod for activities not unlike his own. We can assume that many other political and/or religious agitators were being put to death during this period of time. It would have been almost naive of Jesus not to predict a similar fate for himself. Had Jesus been unable to attach major significance to his probable death, we would have to conclude that he was risking everything in vain and was well aware that this was the case. I think he deserves more credit than that. I think that we have no reason to doubt the gospel version of these events. The interesting question along these lines for me has always been whether or not the death of Jesus was not essentially a suicide: he had foreknowledge that he was to die; he had the power to escape that death; but he chose to let it all happen anyway. Does this constitute a passive form of suicide, albeit a sacrificial one? Is this significant of anything? Any thoughts?

Posted by: Rob on July 16, 2003 01:45 PM
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