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.
signify the disruption of creation. As noted earlier, the establishing and maintenance of boundaries (e.g. against the sea, or death) is crucial to the process of creation and its preservation in the OT. The dissolution of such boundaries could therefore be seen as signifying a victory by the forces of chaos. It is surely significant that this action happens at the precise moment of Jesus’ death, when chaos has triumphed and all is despair. At this moment, Jesus’ victory remains three days in the future.
The second possibility stems from the colours of the temple curtain noted above. Both Josephus and Philo suggest that the four colours incorporated into it (blue, purple, crimson and white [2 Chr 3,14]) symbolise the four elements from which the cosmos was created — indeed, according to Josephus, a panorama of the cosmos was embroidered into the curtain (BJ 5.212-13). Thus, the temple curtain represented not only the boundary between earth and heaven, but the cosmos itself. On this basis — and this seems to me the most likely interpretation of the event — one could argue that the tearing of the temple curtain at the moment of Jesus’ death signifies the rending of creation.
Taken together, the three elements of the passion narrative, the darkness that covers the land, the death of a creator figure and the tearing of the temple curtain, point towards the conclusion that the narrator saw the crucifixion as a chaoskampf — one in which Jesus is apparently defeated by the forces of chaos. Alongside the death of this creator figure, one may also see in the tearing of the temple curtain at least a figurative destruction of creation. The crucifixion as depicted in the synoptic gospels therefore demonstrates the unravelling of the old created order prior to the its renewal or, better, replacement, heralded by Jesus’ resurrection. It is this theology of death, destruction and cosmic renewal (not unlike that of the Baal-Mot legend) that informs the synoptic passion narratives.