Allegory of the end: Matthew’s crucifixion apocalypse

Albert Schweitzer concludes his Quest like so:

There is silence all around. The Baptist appears and cries: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign.

The Quest for the Historical Jesus, pg. 516

In Schweitzer’s estimation the ministry of Jesus constituted a Herculean labor of eschatological proportions from beginning to end. Jesus attempted to commandeer the helm of history and brave strange apocalyptic seas but at last failed to leave the dock. The cross was, in this way, Christ’s final botched attempt to sway the prevailing winds of time. The eschaton never came.

Schweitzer’s unflinching appraisal of Jesus’ execution as epochal crisis—and not yet as eternal atoning sacrifice—makes possible the recovery of an important truth regarding the Synoptic crucifixion accounts: they are fraught with eschatological symbolism.

Crucifixion as parable

In redacting the Markan crucifixion narrative, Matthew aims to heighten the scene’s apocalyptic atmosphere. Among the evangelists it is therefore Matthew who has most clearly shaped his account in such a way as to prefigure the eschatological effects of Christ’s execution. The Matthean crucifixion thus discloses in microcosm the events pertaining to the end of the age. The crucifixion, in as much as it is a “turning of the wheel,” functions to unveil “the things that must take place soon” (Revelation 1:1).

  • As in Mark, the pagan soldiers orchestrate a mock coronation for Jesus. He receives a scarlet robe, a crown of thorns, and, by Matthew’s addition, a scepter of reed. Once invested as prince, the soldiers kneel before him and swear their fealty to the king of the Jews (Matthew 27:27-31). This scene will be reproduced when the Son of Man comes “with his angels in the glory of his Father [to] repay everyone for what has been done” as would a king (Matthew 16:27-28, cf. 25:31-46). Then “every knee shall bow and every tongue shall swear that Jesus is Lord” with all sincerity (Philippians 2:9-11).
  • Matthew next transcribes the notice that darkness covered “the whole land [of Israel]” as Jesus was nearing death (27:45). This darkness anticipates the darkness to come—after a period of terrible suffering “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken (24:29). Then the Son of Man will arrive with “power and great glory” such that “all the tribes of the earth will mourn” (24:30). Dark gloom will thus precede the great day of God’s wrath against wicked nations (cf. Revelation 16:10, Joel 2:1-2).
  • Matthew next duplicates Mark’s aside regarding the splitting of the Temple’s curtain at the moment of Jesus’ expiration (27:51). As with the upending of the Temple’s tables by the enraged prophet (21:12), the tearing of the curtain functions as a proof of the eschatological prediction that “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (24:2). Jerusalem and its house will face cataclysmic judgement for this insolence towards God and his Christ when the Son of Man comes (cf. Luke 23:28-31).
  • Matthew now introduces a sign from the heart of the earth: “The land shook, and the rocks were split” (27:51). Such earthquakes, the Matthean Jesus warns, will be among the “birth pangs” that usher in the end of the present order, a day of great convulsions among nations and kingdoms (24:7).
  • Matthew continues his addendum to Mark: “The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After [Christ’s] resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (27:52-53). The crucifixion of Jesus thus foreshadows the day in which Israel’s righteous dead will be raised to life. They will again “appear to many” in Jerusalem but this time so as to rule over God’s kingdom (cf. Matthew 12:41-42, 13:43, Daniel 12:1-3).
  • Lastly, Matthew clarifies the ambiguous “confession” made by the Markan centurion: “Truly this man was God’s son!” (Mark 15:39). Whereas the Markan centurion utters these words when he witnesses Christ’s final cry of agony, in Matthew’s telling the centurion “and those [Roman soldiers] with him” recognize Jesus as the Son of God in terror when they see the earthquake and “the things taking place” (i.e. the darkness, the tearing of the curtain, and the resurrection of the dead). These frightening eschatological signs elicit from the empire’s representatives their holy confession: Jesus is God’s son, the king of Israel.1 When such signs are fully realized at the end of the age, the nations and its rulers will likewise submit to Christ as divine king (cf. Psalm 2).

Advancing ever nearer, the divine kingdom violently interrupts the crucifixion of God’s son.

Taken together, what is perhaps most striking about the Matthean crucifixion scene is its consistent prioritization of eschatology over soteriology.2 Rather than expounding upon the propitiatory significance of Christ’s sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, Matthew’s attention remains fixed upon what now lies ahead for Israel, for the pagan empire, and for the Christians who will suffer after their master. Powerful signs from Heaven confirm the fate of each. The rebellious nations, Jew and Greek alike, incapacitated by the thronging of Heaven and Earth, will capitulate as the righteous, both the living and the dead, at last participate in the imperial reign of Christ. Thus all will be complete.

1—Luke views the Roman political system and its eschatological future more positively. Divine terrors are not necessary to prompt the confession. The centurion “praises [Israel’s] God” and declares Jesus “innocent” when he sees his serene death (Luke 23:46-47).

2—While John’s account lacks the apocalyptic signs present in Matthew and the other Synoptics, it too refrains from explicitly framing the crucifixion as a sacrificial sin-offering.

5 thoughts on “Allegory of the end: Matthew’s crucifixion apocalypse

  1. Given the fact that early writers like Paul and the writer of Hebrews saw propitiation as a central component of the gospel, I think it’s interesting that the four Gospels have little to say about it. Mark and Matthew each have one verse about how Jesus gave his life as a “ransom for many,” and in Luke the last supper implies sacrifice.

    Of course, we see propitiation mentioned in other books such as 1 John, 1 Peter, and Revelation, but I wonder if this is something early Christians uniformly saw as a foundational.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good to hear from you Peter. There are certainly hints of an early sacrificial reading of Christ’s death in the Gospels, like you mentioned. What I find interesting though is that such texts (e.g. “ransom for many,” “lamb of God,” etc.) have not yet been embedded into the Passion narratives themselves. The Markan account, and the redactions of Luke and Matthew, are much more interested in the apocalyptic meanings while the Johannine account seems most concerned with the fulfillment of OT prophecy. (Luke tends to omit atonement theology from his work altogether).

      This suggests to me that the historical accounts of the crucifixion were distinct from the early kerygma about Jesus’ death for sins. (Paul knows Christ was crucified but he does not mention the details we have in the Gospels—he is privy only to the gospel kerygma).

      Why that’s the case, I’m not sure. I think the apocalyptic interpretation of Jesus’ death was just as early if not earlier than the propitiatory one.

      Are you thinking that Christ’s propitiation was not immediately and/or uniformly accepted early on?


      1. I’m wondering if the earliest disciples saw propitiation as foundational. I know Hurtado wrote that the earliest Christians emphasized the resurrection and exaltation/deification, not the death, but reading Paul’s epistles and Hebrews you’d think otherwise.

        By the way, your statement that there is a “prioritization of eschatology over soteriology” in the Matthean crucifixion scene surprised me. In my mind, eschatology and soteriology seem like two sides of the same coin in the NT.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s a good question, I don’t know.

          I mean soteriology as it is traditionally conceived, as relating to the forgiveness of sins so as to obtain heavenly life—outside of the context of an imminent apocalyptic cataclysm among the living (and the dead). A purely apocalyptic soteriology would posit simply that God will soon save the righteous from their enemies (e.g. deliver Israel from Roman occupation). But you’re right, the purpose of eschatology is the salvation of God’s people, however that salvation is conceived and achieved.

          Liked by 1 person

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