Witness at the Cross: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Friday
I double-checked the title; was “witness” singular or plural? With the answer—singular—the book’s thesis became crystal clear. Amy-Jill Levine invites each reader to be a witness, a witness to arguably one of the most monumental events in history, the death of Jesus of Nazareth. She lays bare each ancient witness’s actions and testimony, and encourages readers to don a cloak, tie up their sandals, and explore the ethical and moral factors that guided (or failed to guide) these ancient characters’ actions. Levine expects that, having learned the witnesses’ stories, readers today will be transformed. Her final sentence bids readers to write their own chapter, “At that point, we pick up the story ourselves” (151). Along with this book, she provides a six-week study on DVD featuring her lectures, and a leader’s guide.
The book includes an introduction that focuses on Simon of Cyrene, then six chapters that concentrate on key characters, and a conclusion that centers on God and Nature, also present in the crucifixion story. The Introduction establishes several themes found throughout the book. First, Levine attends to history, and asks historical questions. Second, she focuses on the “theological symphony” (xiii) produced by the four Gospels, each of which gives only a partial story of Holy Friday. Third, she emphasizes that this event happened to Jews, as Jesus and his followers were first-century Jews living in Galilee and Judea under Roman rule. Enter here Simon of Cyrene, likely a Black Jew from what today is the country of Libya. She details his story to emphasize a fourth theme, namely remembering our own recent history by way of an ancient story. In this case, she explains the terrible history of Libyan Jews during and after the Holocaust, and how Simon’s story can be a “prompt to remember communities that no longer exist because of ethnic cleansing” (xx).
Levine is a prominent, prolific New Testament scholar with extensive teaching experience. All this is evident on every page, as she instructs the reader from her vast historical knowledge and entertains with her quick wit. Part of the book’s appeal is her personal commentary; we learn she likes Mrs. Zebedee (the mother of James and John), or her admission that she can get annoyed at poor translations. Perhaps my favorite: “Trying to figure out who the various women witnesses to the cross are gives me a headache” (89). This conversational style builds the reader’s trust that she is on a journey with them. Moreover, as a gentle physician, she probes the pain points, those places where doing the right thing might hurt, and failing to do right might hurt even more. For example, she reflects on the centurion’s declaration that Jesus is righteous or innocent, but he realized this too late to save Jesus. Levine asks whether today we can forgive those “who execute others––in army actions, at traffic stops––and then acknowledge they have done wrong?” (71). She asks hard questions and in so doing, leads readers into deeper reflection.
The first three chapters look at those outside Jesus’s circle: bystanders, the other crucified men, and soldiers. Levine argues that readers today are challenged to put ourselves in the scene and ponder how we might act, adding that no one said reading this story would be easy. In Chapter 1, she pauses over Jesus’s cry of dereliction, his reference to Psalm 22. She reminds readers that to pray a lament psalm is to insist that though the divine seems far away, “we know that God is listening” (11). Chapter 2 focuses on the two thieves crucified with Jesus. Alongside the ancient story, Levine describes teaching at Riverbend Maximum Security Institute. For over twenty years, she and her Vanderbilt Divinity School students instructed “insider” students, who raised hard, but necessary questions about incarceration today. Levine shares what her students, her friends, taught her, namely that “they are individuals with families and friends, with stories of how they came to be sentenced to prison, with guilt and remorse” (28). Chapter 3 examines the soldiers at the scene, and she spends time looking at the Gospels’ depiction of a Roman centurion. While Levine is not convinced there was a centurion at the cross, the words he speaks are plausible in the story and she explores possible interpretations of his statement.
The next three chapters focus on the disciples. Chapter 4 looks at the Beloved Disciple.
Levine suggests that the lack of a name for this disciple prompts readers to focus on his character and actions. Levine suggests that John wants each reader to imagine themselves as this beloved disciple, for we all need to feel Jesus’s deep love at times. In one of several playful moments in the book, she writes, “I’ve asked John whether he intended this interpretation; in my imagination, he smiles back at me” (76).
Chapter 5 looks at the women at the cross as well as the daughters of Jerusalem to whom Jesus speaks on his way to Golgotha. Levine’s far-reaching knowledge of women at this time adds depth and texture to the snippets of information found in the Gospels. She remarks that women were included in Jesus’s followers throughout his ministry and encourages readers to re-read the Gospels with that in mind. Reflecting on Mark’s note that the women were at a distance during the crucifixion, Levine rejects the idea that the women are aloof. Instead, she suggests they are frightened of the soldiers, or feeling guilty that they did not do more to stop the crucifixion or are unable to stand closer to such pain as was experienced by the three men on their crosses. By standing at the cross, the women risked being ostracized by family and friends; even more, they risked their lives. Levine observes that the phrase “daughters of Jerusalem” is found elsewhere in Scripture only on the lips of the female lover in the Song of Songs. She postulates that the women in Jerusalem have a love for Jesus, and are lamenting his death, a righteous man killed by authorities. She wonders if they also repent for their community leaders’ complicity in Jesus’s death, even as today “communities recognize that actions taken by leaders impact the people as a whole” (102). I found this reconstruction plausible and insightful. Levine discusses Jesus’s use of “woman” throughout John’s gospel, concluding that with this term, Jesus recognizes each woman’s needs and their contributions.
Chapter 6 reviews Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Levine reasons that both men probably were historical figures, but she cannot confirm their actions definitively. Demonstrating her extensive historical knowledge of the Greco-Roman world, Levine discusses Pilate’s reaction to Joseph’s request for Jesus’s body. She notes that Rome occasionally allowed the corpse of a crucified man to be returned to his family for proper burial just before a public festival, and suggests Pilate makes a similar gesture. Levine dis- plays her wide-ranging familiarity with the Talmud as she explores Nicodemus’s possible background. She is convinced of the importance of rigorous historical study of the biblical text. She emphasizes that “Biblical studies, in my view, should support belief when belief is already present, rather than destroy it” (135). She objects to using “questions of historicity to discount the Bible or to undermine someone’s belief” (135). Levine’s position is that “Distinctions and matters of history should serve as prompts to increase appreciation of the multiple messages the text can convey” (135).
Levine doubts the historicity of a full Sanhedrin trial; however, Joseph and Nicodemus provide important prompts, allowing readers to explore perennial issues of discipleship. Assuming a trial, did Joseph vote against Jesus? Or did he speak out against such a verdict? Levine acknowledges how difficult it is to be the only voice speaking for justice. She points to Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men (1953) as her image of Joseph of Arimathea, as one who stands against injustice (she makes several references to movies throughout the book). Could Nicodemus have done more to support Jesus, introducing him to his influential friends? Levine suggests that Nicodemus represents the sympathizer, the one who attends services but is not a member of the group. She stresses that both men take Jesus’s body from the cross, caring for the corpse, which is a laudable deed done to one who can never repay.
The final chapter summarizes the human actors taking part in the crucifixion. Then Levine reminds the reader that both God and nature are also present at the cross. The tearing of the Temple veil expresses the “symbolic splintering of the universe” (146), and all things are different, new. She disputes the interpretation that the tearing of the veil symbolizes that the gentiles can now come close to God, as a misunderstanding of Judaism. Throughout the book, Levine critiques anti-Jewish interpretations.
Jesus dies and the witnesses depart, except for the two thieves still on their crosses. Yet God and nature are ever present. The Gospels’ story of death will change to a story of joy, and then one of commission. Levine invites the reader to be transformed.