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.
or under the influence of, the powers of chaos. From this, it is but a short step to see the darkness spreading over the earth at Jesus’ crucifixion as representing the powers of chaos encroaching upon the creation. It is my contention that the crucifixion is expressed literarily as a chaoskampf, but one in which the powers of chaos are victorious. This chaoskampf theme is far from alien to the gospels (especially in confrontations with the demonic), and features most prominently in the narrative in which Jesus demonstrates his command over the forces of chaos by ordering the winds and waves that had threatened his boat to be still (Matt 8,23-27; Mark 4,35-41; Luke 8,22-25). Several commentators see in this latter episode an allusion to Psalm 104, in which Yahweh accomplishes the same feat. Indeed, it is noticeable that Jesus, faced by the raging chaos waters, does not call on Yahweh, but, rather, acts as if he were Yahweh 6. Naturally, the synoptic writers stop short of taking the parallel to its logical conclusion (i.e. calling Jesus "God") 7, but there is certainly a blurring of the distinction between Jesus as human and the Jesus as a creator figure. The act of repulsing the hostile forces of chaos is implicitly linked with creation, and the godlike power of Jesus in so doing is evidenced in the terrified exclamation of the disciples: "Who is this? Even the winds and waves obey him!" (Matt 8,27; Mark 4,41 cf. Luke 8,25).
2. Jesus’ Death and Resurrection
The death of this creator figure on the cross is, in a sense, the ultimate victory of Chaos over creation, for death in OT thought was associated with chaos, and Sheol is depicted as the dwelling place of chaos. For Hebrew writers the lifebreath returned to God on the death of the individual (Eccl 12,7), but the essence of that person took up residence in Sheol (Eccl 9,10). In those texts that explicitly describe Sheol, it is characterised by dust (Job 17,16; 21,26; Ps 7,6 [Eng. 5]) and silence (Pss 31,17-18; 94,17; 115,17; Isa 47,5). Both aspects contribute to the feeling that the Hebrew underworld is essentially a dry, lifeless place, rather like the description of the land in Gen 2,5 before the formation of humanity (cf. Gen 1,9-10). As with Sheol, desert and wasteland, where little or nothing grows, are viewed as chaotic in Hebrew thought precisely because they are lifeless (cf. the use of the term wht in Gen 1,2 and Deut 32,10; Job 6,18; 12,24; Isa 24,10; 45,18).
Sheol is further equated with chaos in its frequent association with darkness (Job 17,13 cf. Lam 3,6; Job 18,18), and, like the sea, it is fitted with gates (Isa 38,10; Pss 9,14 [ Eng. 13]; 107,18; Job 38,17 cf. Wis 16,13; Matt 16,18; Rev 1,18) and bars (Jon 2,7 [Eng. 6]; Job 38,10), presumably to prevent the escape of its inhabitants (and thus to maintain the separation between the realms of creation and uncreation). Most significant of all, however, are those OT poetic texts that combine imagery of the individual being engulfed by the chaos waters and being carried down to Sheol (Jon 2,3-6; Pss 42,8; 69,2-3.15-16; 88,7-8). Death in Hebrew thought then involved a movement from the created realm to the realm of uncreation, or chaos.