Could Jesus have really said this?
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Tuesday, April 7th: Psalm 71:1-14; Isaiah 49:1-7; John 12:20-36; and 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that I read, Luke 23:34 is printed within double-brackets ([[ … ]]) and it is footnoted. The footnote shares with the reader that this verse is absent in some “ancient authorities.” Joseph Fitzmyer, writing in the Anchor Bible Commentary on this passage, counts 23:34 as an interruption in the flow of the crucifixion account, and for this reason considers it a later addition to the original Lucan text. Furthermore, he argues that there is no clear referent to Jesus’ words. To whom is Jesus referring, Fitzmyer asks.
He then contrasts the impassive crowd of people who “stood by” (23:35) with the active taunts of “the leaders” (23:35), “the soldiers” (23:36), and “one of the criminals” (23:39). These three give voice to a major theological theme in Luke – salvation. All three taunt Jesus for His acclamation as Saviour. Remember even those recent shouts of “Hosanna!”, which is Hebrew for “Save, we pray.” In a most unexpected way, Jesus’ tortured death is precisely the final act of Jesus as Saviour. When Jesus chooses not to save Himself, He saves all others.
I would argue that 23:34 does not interrupt the flow of the crucifixion account, nor is it a statement floating without anchor. I hear in the words “‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,’” Jesus’ plea for mercy for everyone who cannot see salvation offered when Jesus refuses to save Himself. This includes the three active taunts of the religious authorities, the soldiers and the criminal, but it also includes the indifference of “the people [who] stood by watching.” Jesus does not die only for those who recognize Him as Saviour. Jesus dies for everyone.
Fitzmyer holds that 23:34 is a later addition based on Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7:60b or even Eusebius’ story of the stoning of James the Just from two and a half to three centuries later. It seems to me much more logical to assume that the accounts associated with Jesus’ followers are modeled after Jesus’ example rather than vice-versa.
With this said, I believe that 23:34 is a contested passage not because it was added later as Christians became increasingly insular and judgmental, but because of its very authenticity coming from the mouth of a religious radical. It is so shocking that it must have been difficult for some copyists to accept as original. Some Christians, then and now, have great difficulty with Jesus as the universal Saviour. Some would prefer that Jesus’ salvific death be reserved for those “worthy” of it, and even go to the extreme that Jesus’ death be the reason why those who “do not know what they are doing” be condemned because of it.
The image below is Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion. For Jews throughout history, Good Friday was a day filled with terror and death. Judgmental Christians would attack and kill the “Christ killers” in the name of the Jewish Messiah who died for all people. As it is written in today’s passage from Deutero-Isaiah: “‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’” Jesus, our Saviour, is Saviour of all. He forgave even the ones who were torturing Him to death and the casual bystanders who merely watched. And in this He leaves His followers a hard lesson, but one that carries the gravitas of a dying man’s last words.
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