“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46.
This utterance always struck me as among the most authentic of Jesus’ statements. In Mark, these words are also rendered Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani, which is thought to be Aramaic, the common language Israelites would have used at the time of Christ. Mark’s choice to write the words of Jesus in both Greek (the original New Testament scrolls were all written in Greek) and to retain it in the original language suggests that Mark wanted to emphasize that these words were the words of Jesus.
But few things in life are straightforward. To complicate things, Matthew uses Eli, eli, lama sabachthani, words which are slightly different than in Mark’s account, because they are Hebrew. (Hebrew and Aramaic were similar languages.) And so, to recap, both Matthew and Mark thought so much of the “why have you abandoned me” saying that both tried to retain it in its original language, except that Matthew thought that was Hebrew and Mark thought it was Aramaic.
In Jesus’ time, Hebrew was the language of scripture, and the historic language of the Jewish people. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and it was widely used in the Temple and synagogues. Aramaic was the street language, very similar but not identical to Hebrew. Most people in Israel spoke Aramaic, and although it was replacing Hebrew as the standard language in Palestine, many if not most Jews would have known both. Thus, it is easy to see how, given the similarity between the two phrases, that a person overhearing it could have mistaken one for the other.
I don’t think the difference matters. When an important event occurs and eyewitness accounts do not precisely agree with one another, this does not disprove their accuracy. Paradoxically, it make the story more believable.
When people want to deceive, they compare notes and get their facts straight. A group of people who want to foist a lie tend to carefully stick to a script. Contradictions raise doubts in the minds of listeners. A perfectly clean story is either an extremely precise account of the truth, which is rare in oral reports, or a well-executed con job.
When several people separately observe the same event, it is common for each person to remember it slightly differently. Everyone has a different point of view and different perceptions. If ten people watch a car accident, it is likely that each of the ten will give a unique version of the story. Some of the accounts may even be contradictory. This is natural and expected from human beings.
Thus, it makes sense that a single utterance of Jesus might be remembered differently by two different people. From that perspective, the inconsistency looks more like an honest difference of opinion reported by two people who were there rather than proof that anything was concocted. If you are an eyewitness to an important event, you are not likely to back down or change your account when confronted with another’s account. I can easily imagine two people sticking to their stories because they were there and comfortable with what they saw.
A number of details in the Passion story are like that, varying among the accounts. And in most cases, the variations look to me to be the result of independent points of view, rather than signs that the events did not happen. The variations, which would be expected in oral recollections, humanize the story.
“Why have you abandoned me?” is a post-modernist cry. They are words of desperation, of emptiness, of expenditure. Sartre or Camus couldn’t have done better. They are probably the most disturbing of the Last Words, because Jesus seems to be asking if God has gone away.
Well, has he? Has a God that has let his Son suffer and die gone away? Jesus’ words are our words, perhaps more so than any other pronouncement in the Gospels. Jesus asks the same question almost everyone has asked at some point: Why would a God that loves would allow so much pain?
The resurrection of Christ could be taken as an answer. If after God abandons his Son, He then raises him from the dead, this suggests that we too will rise again, and God will make good on His promises to us as well. If we follow Jesus’ way, we will share in his redemption.
That doesn’t seem like quite enough, though. I’m not looking forward to suffering in my own life just because Jesus suffered. That is a path I could follow, but God forgive me if I would rather not. Certainly the Passion is not telling us that we must suffer a horrible death to find paradise. There has to be another answer.
And in a way, there is, and it comes in the very question, “Why did you abandon me?” The question is not answered, at least not on Good Friday. When Jesus dies, he experiences the same silence we sometime feel when we wonder what is the point of it all. If God will not answer his own Son, we cannot expect an prompt answer either.
That does not mean we will never get one. But we will not get one at this moment. God’s silence to Jesus reminds us that God may be in the loving business, but that does not necessarily mean He is in the answering business. This should not be a surprise. Parents do not always answer their children’s questions; sometimes the time and place is not right. Sometimes, for a parent, the right answer is no answer. For now.
For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.