Dominic Rudman, «The Crucifixion as Chaoskampf: A New Reading of the Passion Narrative in the Synoptic Gospels», Vol. 84 (2003) 102-107
The depiction of the events surrounding the crucifixion in the Synoptic Gospels (particularly the darkness and the tearing of the temple curtain) have provoked widely varying responses from New Testament scholars. This article argues that the inclusion of these details in the narrative can be understood by reference to the chaoskampf typology of the Old Testament. Here, as elsewhere in the gospels (e.g. Matt 8,23-27; Mark 4,35-41; Luke 8,22-25), Jesus is presented as a creator figure who confronts the powers of chaos. In this instance however, the powers of chaos emerge temporarily triumphant. The old creation is destroyed, paving the way for a renewal of creation with Jesus’s resurrection.
The descriptions of Jesus’ crucifixion in the synoptic gospels make reference to several elements not present in the account of John. In particular, Matt 27,45-54, Mark 15,33-39 and Luke 23,44-47 all make mention of a darkness covering the earth from the sixth to the ninth hours (i.e. in the three hours leading up to Jesus’ death), of the temple curtain being torn in two, and of a centurion, witnessing the events surrounding Jesus’ death, acknowledging either his innocence or his status as a "son of God".
These events have been interpreted by commentators in different ways. Some have seen in the description of the darkness and the tearing of the temple curtain no more than a reporting of the historical circumstances of Jesus’ death. Others, however, see the narrative as having a literary purpose; as illustrative of Jesus’ status as God’s son, as betokening a desire on the part of God to shield his son from the most public aspects of a drawn-out and humiliating death, or as indicating God’s displeasure with the Israel that had rejected his son. There are, however, problems with all of these interpretations, and it is on this account that no solid consensus has been formed as to the precise significance to be attached to these portents. This article seeks to examine the conflicting scholarly interpretations of these events and to offer evidence for a new and distinctive understanding of this narrative.
II. Darkness, Death and the Temple Curtain:
The Old Testament and Jewish Background
In order to better understand the problems surrounding current interpretations of the portents associated with Jesus’ crucifixion, the main scholarly positions will now be examined in turn. Firstly, it should be stated that the historical approach to the description of the darkness adopted by O’Collins and Cranfield has very little impact on attempts to read the narrative with a literary or theological bias1. Both explain the darkness in the synoptic accounts as the result of one of the periodic "black siroccos" that is said to afflict areas in Palestine from time to time. Whether this darkness occurred or not, and whether or not it was indeed the result of a dust storm, what matters is that the narrator attaches enough significance to the event to weave it into his narrative. It is the task of the critic not to worry about the historicity of such a detail (especially when it is unverifiable), but to discover why it was deemed worthy of inclusion in the narrative.