WHAT is your choice of a symbol for the narrative of Christ’s Passion?
The artist Graham Sutherland, encouraged by commissions in the 1940s from Walter Hussey at St Matthew’s, Northampton, painted a series of Thorn Heads (drawn from the observation of nature) which metamorphosed via the crown of thorns into representations of the crucifixion for the church. And therefore the representational idea developed between these two different images, both equally piercing and concrete.
The crown of thorns is a feature of the traditional narrative of Christ’s crucifixion, but Sutherland’s inspiration came from a more individual and radical source.
David Allen’s subject-matter has the traditional source material of the Old Testament for its focus, but it is not lacking in debate and controversy, as well as the individual potential shown by New Testament writers. His dialogue is neatly summarised between the apparent positions of two renowned German scholars, Martin Hengel and Martin Kahler. Hengel’s is the more flexible position: “If all you know is the New Testament, you do not know the New Testament.”
This does not go as far as Sutherland’s Thorn Heads, but it certainly includes a whole variety of allusions to Old Testament ideas, as well as direct quotations from the Hebrew Bible and the possibilities of their developing interpretation in Jewish and Christian traditions. Kahler’s is a much more concrete concept, at least in relation to the earliest Gospel: Mark’s is a “passion narrative with an extended introduction”. The Passion is a discrete source available to Mark, probably in an original form, and then carried forward by other Evangelists in their own ways.
Allen describes the purpose of his book as “a study of the way the NT writers utilized the Jewish Scriptures in order to describe, articulate and evaluate the death of Jesus”. The main title that he uses recalls the classic 1952 volume According to the Scriptures by C. H. Dodd. But Allen’s focus is concentrated on the Passion, as his subtitle makes clear.
Dodd’s innovative approach had been thematic (going to contexts rather than isolated proof-texts), demonstrating how the categories and sub-structures of New Testament theology were provided by the Old Testament. This had been the foundation of Dodd’s 1936 work The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments. In contrast, Allen’s discussion of the evidence is not restrained by so rigid a template, but is open to exploring the range of emphases and motivation in New Testament writers on the death of Christ.
This discussion is arranged in seven chapters, dealing with each Evangelist, followed by Paul, Hebrews, and the other NT epistles. Acts is included in the Lucan chapter, while 1 John and Revelation have rather meagre treatment under John. There is no coverage of the extra-canonical texts. The chapters are supplemented by detailed endnotes and bibliography (with some inadequacies); there is a scriptural index, but a serious lack of a subject/author index.
I would certainly support the endorsement by Susan Docherty in recommending the book for student use; but perhaps the concentrated detail will make it somewhat indigestible for the more general reader.
Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.
According to the Scriptures: The death of Christ in the Old Testament and the New
SCM Press £25
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