Book Review: The Seven Sayings of Jesus from the Cross: Their Circumstances and Meaning.*
Murray Harris has written a gem of a book. As he says in the preface, it is a detailed technical analysis of the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross as distinct from a devotional treatment. Its design exemplifies this. After the preface there is an introduction, a table of abbreviations, quite extensive footnotes, a bibliography, and indexes of authors and subjects (combined) and of ancient documents. Technical it may be, but it is readily accessible to the general reader, as is evidenced, for example, by the transliteration of Greek and Hebrew words, and the length of the chapters, averaging just eight pages each
The book comprises two parts: Part One covers the circumstances of the sayings (chapters 1–2), and Part Two (chapters 3-11) deals with the seven sayings in turn, with one chapter devoted to each. Chapter ten contains some concluding reflections and chapter eleven is a single page table listing the sayings. In spite of the book’s technical focus, it is offered “in the prayerful desire that appreciation of the character of Jesus will be enriched and devotion to him deepened” (xi). It fulfils this desire. Indeed, I found parts to be quite moving, and at times I thought I should take of my shoes. I felt I was on holy ground.
The two chapters in Part One deal with the more remote and the more immediate circumstances of the sayings respectively. Chapter one draws together and reconstructs from the Gospels the details of the twelve hours from 9:00 PM Thursday to 9:00 AM Friday, covering the arrest, and the Jewish and Roman trials of Jesus. Chapter two comes in two parts. Part A discusses crucifixion in general and then the crucifixion of Jesus and the circumstances surrounding it, including the personalities involved and the ultimate cause of death, (not overlooking that Jesus gave up his life). Part B considers the state of Jesus’s body and spirit. At Golgotha he felt extreme exhaustion, relentless pain and ominous dread, and at the cross he felt excruciating pain, intense effort to speak, and the temptation to save himself from the cross. The sayings emerge from this.
In a review such as this I need not rehearse every chapter. A few comments on a couple of chapters will give the flavour. In chapter three Harris first deals with the textual issues surrounding the genuineness of the first saying (Luke 23:24), and argues cogently that it is genuine. He discusses the addressee (abba) and the details of the request (footnote 12 on p. 30 notes that addresses to the deity are in the aorist tense to “gain a hearing for specific matters”), comparing it with Stephen’s prayer in Acts 7. He notes the beneficiaries of the request—probably the four-man execution squad, “totally ignorant of the historical and theological significance of their actions” (32) and the basis of the request (“mitigating circumstances,” 33). Jesus was dramatizing his instruction in Luke 6:28, and fulfilling Isa 53:12c (missing from the Greek OT). Harris contrasts this prayer with 2 Chron 24:20-22 where Zechariah sought vengeance as he was stoned to death. The chapter ends with a paraphrase. “Dear Father, I am asking you to forgive theses Roman soldiers for the act of crucifying me; they are unaware of what they are actually doing” (34). I found the paraphrase useful and was sorry that none of the other chapters ended in this way.
In his treatment of the sixth saying (John 19:30a, chapter eight) Harris notes that, after taking the sour wine (John 19:29), Jesus was now able to speak clearly, which he did in a loud voice (Matt 27:48–50; Mark 15:36–37). He notes that this saying is in the perfect tense, focusing on the present results of a past occurrence. What Jesus said was finished, remains so. He notes the appearance of the same form of the same verb in v. 28. He explores the referent of the “it” that was finished, suggesting that it may have been Jesus’s life on earth, Jesus’s work on earth – doing the Father’s will or the old order of things (with a glance at the book of Hebrews). He prefers the second option (Jesus’s work on earth). Finally, he notes that this loud cry of triumph is one of John’s major climaxes (with 10:30 and 20:28).
Chapter ten contains some final observations on the sayings to pull the book together. Harris notes, among other things, that the first three sayings would have been in the first three hours, the fourth at the end of the darkness, and the final three a few minutes after that, that the fourth and sixth sayings were in a loud voice, that Jesus addressed God as “Father” … “my God” … and “Father,” and that the last four sayings quote or allude to Psalms. He concludes by noting that the immediate sequel was the earthquake, the resurrection of many saints, the confession of the centurion, and the burial of Jesus. The ultimate sequel was the resurrection.
I have two quibbles (every reviewer needs at least one or two). First, the bibliography is a bit dated. All but three of the works listed come from the last century, and two of those from the twenty-first century are Harris’s own books. Secondly, he assumes that the beloved disciple, the author of the Fourth Gospel was John the son of Zebedee, whom he refers to as Jesus’s cousin (88). Surely Jesus’s cousin was that other John (the Baptist). And he doesn’t enter into the arguments raised in recent years, most notably by Richard Bauckham, that the beloved disciple was a Jerusalem-based disciple called John who owned the house where the upper room was located, rather than a Galilean fisherman, who would have been unlikely to have been known by the Jewish high priest (John 18:15). In a technical book a glance in this direction would have been expected, even if only to dismiss the theory. These aside, this is a fine little book. I would recommend its reading as a Lenten exercise each year.
Philip Church is a former Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology, Laidlaw College, Auckland; and formerly the editor of Stimulus Journal.
*To see the publishing details and ways the book is available please click on the image below