Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

Peter must have been deeply touched by Paul’s insatiable curiosity about Jesus. It is likely that Paul’s detailed inquiries brought to the surface of his mind incidents and impressions that he had fogotten. To this extent they delighted in a common quest. There was one important issue, however, on which they might have differed.

The stress that Paul laid on the crucifixion of Jesus set him apart from other preachers among the first Christians. The others mentioned the death of Jesus, and underlined its sacrificial dimension by saying that ‘he died for our sins’. They did not spell out exactly how it had happened. This attitude is perfectly understandable. It was difficult enough to preach a Saviour who had died without apparently achieving anything. It was immensely more difficult to preach a Saviour who had been executed as low class criminal.

Why, then, did Paul make the crucifixion of Jesus, of which he had heard as a Pharisee, the centerpiece of his preaching, when none of his contemporaries did? Just as Paul the Pharisee had seen to the heart of the fundamental opposition between Christianity and Judaism, while Christians did not, so too here Paul’s penetrating intelligence detected a problem that others did not perceive. If Jesus was the Messiah, he should not have died!

All Jews accepted that the Messiah would be the purifying leader of a holy people. He could not possibly be a sinner. His absolute righteousness was taken completely for granted. The Jewish Scriptures, however, taught that death was punishment for sin. It was not integral to human nature. The Book of Wisdom can serve as the representative of a series of texts reaching back to Genesis and forward to the second century AD, “God created humanity in a state of incorruptibility. In the image of his own eternity he made it. But through the devil’s envy death entered the world” (2: 23-24). If the Messiah was not a sinner, then death had no claim on him.

While Jewish scholars, such as Paul, would have been conscious of the force of this argument, the vast majority of Jews would have associated the Messiah with the last great victory of good over evil. The advent of the Messiah was seen as the glorious climax to history beyond which no one thought to venture. Inevitably the Messiah was thought of in terms of eternity. Why should he die?

Paul’s dilemma should now be clear. He recognized Jesus as the Messiah, but he also knew that Jesus had died. Both points were certain. The absolute streak in Paul’s character meant that he could not live with this contradiction. There had to be a resolution, but not by the calculated ambiguity of compartmentalization, nor by the abandonment one or other fact.

Eventually Paul realized that only one solution was possible. If someone on whom death had no claim actually died, then that person must have chosen to die. All other human beings can only accept death, It will take them whether they like it or not. For Paul, Jesus did not suffer that restriction. His death was the result of a personal decision. Thus Paul repeatedly emphasizes that his death was self-sacrifice.

Once Paul had accepted that the death of Jesus was an act of self-sacrifice, a dead sinless Messiah ceased to be a problem. Its modality then became the central issue: why did Jesus choose the most horrible way to die, the agonizing suffering of crucifixion? It goes withoug saying that in posing such a question Paul was working backwards. Jesus did not have to die. But if he did in fact die, and in this particular way, then he must have chosen that form of death. Why?

The standard teaching that Paul inherited insisted that the death of Jesus had benefited humanity. Paul turned this the other way round. Jesus, he believed, intended his death to bring good to others. In Paul’s eyes such altruism could only be explained as an act of love. “He loved me, that is he gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

This insight so overwhelmed Paul that henceforward he could not mention the death of Jesus without wanting others to appreciate the extraordinary depth and power of the love it revealed. In practice this meant forcing his hearers and readers to confront the ugly reality of the crucifixion. Hence his vow, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2: 2).

For Paul Jesus’ death became the key to the meaning of his life. It revealed to Paul that what makes a person genuinely human is the self-sacrificing love shown by Christ. This, above all, is what he wanted his readers to take to heart.