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Monday, March 26, 2012

RevGalBookPals: The Last Week

We have a great and timely review today from Bonnie Jacobs, who introduces herself again below:

Hi, I'm Bonnie Jacobs, a United Methodist pastor who has been a member of RevGals for less than a year.  After retirement, I opened a bookstore with a friend, selling mostly used books, a goodly number of which we found on our own shelves as we were downsizing (she was an English teacher).  Since then, I've blogged about books, taught Religions of the World as adjunct at Chattanooga State, and preached when someone was absent from the pulpit.  This book seemed like a good one to discuss as we approach Palm Sunday and Easter.

The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem ~ by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, 2006

No matter how many times I study a passage of scripture, I can always find something more in it.  If I look at it from a different angle, the light falls on something I didn't notice the last time.  If I approach it while dealing with something in my life or in the lives of people in my congregation, I see something new.  It happened again this month, as I took another look at the gospel of Mark, along with Borg and Crossan.  A few days ago, two of you touched themes in this book.  I loved the thinking in this exchange on Facebook:
Gord said,
"Palm Sunday is April Fool's day this year.  Any thoughts on linking the two?  (Personally I'd love it if the full moon was a week earlier and Easter Sunday was April 1.)"
Elaine responded,
"I've been thinking along the same lines.  The Last Week by Borg and Crossan talks about the entrance of two different parades ... that might be a way into the connection."
Borg and Crossan discovered that many Christians are not clear about the details of events during the week leading up to Jesus's crucifixion, so they present a day-by-day account of Jesus's final week of life, with eight chapters for the eight days.  (Notice that this would fit nicely into a Lenten Bible study.)  They begin by differentiating between what we call "Passion Week" (a time of suffering) and what Jesus was passionate about — the kingdom of God.  Let's take a look the first two days.


On Palm Sunday, as Elaine mentioned, there were two entries into Jerusalem.  The triumphal entry of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, riding on a horse and leading his soldiers into the city, symbolized the military strength of the empire.  The other entry was a peasant procession that Borg and Crossan suggest "looks like a planned political demonstration" (p. 4).  Pilate represented a domination system of political oppression, economic exploitation, and religious legitimation.  And Jewish leaders were on his side.
"What was new was that the temple was now at the center of local collaboration with Rome" (p.15).
The temple authorities raised tribute for Rome with an annual "temple tax."  They were supporting imperial violence and injustice.  And here we have a chance to mention April Fool's Day, as Gord wants to do.  Jesus, riding his little donkey, was making fun of Pilate.  Making a fool of him.  Making an important point about the kingdom of God, that it was nonviolent.

And that leads us to Monday.  Remember the story about the money-changers in the temple?  Actually, they were in the courtyard of the temple.  Jesus took a look around the place on Sunday evening (according to Mark) and saved his second "demonstration" until morning.  But notice he did check it out.  He was preparing for the next day, just as he had lined up the donkey ahead of time.


Overturning the tables was planned, just as Jesus planned his entry into Jerusalem.  These were two demonstrations against the system.  Sunday, the anti-imperial entry into Jerusalem, and Monday, the symbolic destruction of the temple.
"What is involved for Jesus is an absolute criticism not only of violent domination, but of any religious collaboration with it" (p. 53).

"There was a terrible ambiguity in that the priest who represented the Jews before God on the Day of Atonement also represented them before Rome the rest of the year" (p. 41).
Borg and Crossan give compelling details that show how Mark carefully painted a picture of Jesus demonstrating against violence and injustice.  In the preface, they show how the word passion has come to mean the suffering of Jesus during Holy Week.  Yet the passion of Jesus, what he was passionate about, was the kingdom of God.
"The first passion of Jesus was the kingdom of God, namely, to incarnate the justice of God by demanding for all a fair share of a world belonging to and ruled by the covenantal God of Israel.  It was that first passion for God's distributive justice that led inevitably to the second passion by Pilate's punitive justice" (p. viii).

The authors point out how Mark used "frames" around scenes to make his points.  It was fascinating to me to see the stories of healing the blind before and after the disciples had totally misunderstood Jesus.  In other words, they were blind.  After reading this book, I can see that Mark was a much more sophisticated and nuanced writer than I had realized.  The careful placement of the stories of blind men being healed, immediately before and after the lack of the disciples's comprehension, serves to emphasize that part of the story.  The point is made with the frames:  the Twelve just don't get it.  They can't see, and thus miss the point of what Jesus is trying to teach them.  This is a major point in the book:
"Notice, above all, how repeatedly Mark has Jesus insist that Peter, James, and John, the Twelve, and all his followers on the way from Caesarea Philippi to Jeusalem must pass with him through death to a resurrected life whose content and style was spelled out relentlessly against their refusals to accept it.  For Mark, it is about participation with Jesus and not substitution by Jesus" (p. 102).
That understanding is from the Wednesday chapter, but it is made even more explicit in the Friday chapter:
"Was Jesus guilty of advocating violent revolution against the empire and its local collaborators?  No. ... was Jesus guilty of nonviolent resistance to imperial Roman oppression and local Jewish collaboration?  Oh, yes.  Mark's story of Jesus's final week is a sequence of public demonstrations against and confrontations with the domination system.  And, as all know, it killed him" (p. 163).
Another quote, this time from the Easter Sunday chapter, points out how these authors understand the point Mark and the other gospel writers wanted to make:
"Good Friday and Easter, death and resurrection together, are a central image in the New Testament  for the path to a transformed self.  The path involves dying to an old way of being and being reborn into a new way of being.  Good Friday and Easter are about this path, the path of dying and rising, of being born again" (p. 210).
And finally, using the gospel of John, the authors give their understanding of the claim that Jesus is the "only way."
"The Jesus of John's gospel speaks explicitly about being 'born again' (3:1-10).  In another passage, he says that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it cannot bear fruit (12:24).  He speaks of this way as 'the only way' (14:6) in a verse that has unfortunately often become a triumphalist claim justifying Christian exclusivism.  But within John's incarnational theology, the death and resurrection of Jesus incarnates the way of transformation.  This is what it means to say, 'Jesus is the only way.'  The path we see in him — dying and rising — is the path of personal transformation" (p. 211).
This review may seem to have little focus, hitting these points as it does.  But taken all together, Borg and Crossan show what Mark was attempting to do in his narrative.  It may be a new way of seeing the story for you, not what you were expecting.  It happened to Matthew and Luke, who used Mark as a basis for what they wrote, according to most scholars.  Borg and Crossan show where those gospels changed a thing or two, here and there, not aware of what Mark had been doing, like with his framing technique and is found at several points of his story.  (Monday's page 33 has a chart of half a dozen stories Mark "framed" to make his point.)

I highly recommend this book to you.

Quotations are from the paperback edition published by HarperOne, which I bought myself.


  1. Most interesting and helpful, but my preference would be to turn the discussion of "passion" back-to-front...because we have so thoroughly lost access to the root meaning, which is suffering, so that "passionate" now more often than not just = "really loud" (and often costlessly loud) ... note fondness of search committees for asking, "Tell us what you're PASSIONATE about"...wouldn't it be more telling if they said, "What causes you suffering, what GOOD THING are you suffering with/for/about at this point in your life?"
    Thank you for posting this!

  2. I am finding the book really interesting. It has some perspectives that are new to me, and I have enjoyed thinking them through. One thing that has come through for me is the planned nature of some of Jesus' actions that week, like a demonstration - which makes sense for me of the riding into Jerusalem and the activity in the Temple Courtyard. I also found the social, political and cultural background helpful.
    This is the book I have based my sermons on for the past 4 weeks, yesterday we looked at the Wednesday chapter, many of these readings we never look at because we don't have services every day in holy week, and the lectionary rarely reads this passages in Mark. And looking at them consecutively, as we move toward Easter has given me, and hopefully the congregation, a better background of the events leading to the crucifixion.

  3. When I preached on this I contrasted the two crowds gathered for that day by asking them to think of the number of seats in Michigan's FB stadium, MSU's stadium, Ohio State's stadium, and in the stadium where the Detroit Lions played. (My internship was in Michigan). It was easy to find those figures on the web.

    We had 150 people in worship that Sunday for the opposing gathering of people.

  4. I read the book a few years ago and found that there was enough to preach on. But I don't preach on Palm Sundays. The Passion is enough for people to think on. Holy Week needs to be lived, IMO, rather than preached.

  5. This review gave lots of food for thought.

  6. I started this book a few years ago and got sidetracked before I finished it. Thanks for the highlights. I just bought the Kindle version for my iPad (the ease of which is alarming for my pocketbook!) and will be looking at it over the next week.

  7. Muthah+, we don't all have the tradition of reading the Passiontide liturgy on Palm/Passion Sunday. So in that case, we really need to do something with the entry into Jerusalem, and Borg/Crossan are great for context. I find my folks love hearing the historical material. Bonnie, thanks for the review!

  8. Thanks for all the comments, everyone.


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