What if the Gospel writers didn’t know why the crucifixion happened? What if the Gospels are all an attempt to cover over this fact by making it seem increasingly predicted, inevitable, mysterious? Making the cross something that promises meaningfulness, without a concrete meaning?
The basic strategy is twofold. First, establish Jesus’ authority. He’s the messiah (though he kept this fact secret for most of his career, according to Mark), he’s the one who was predicted by certain decontextualized fragments of the Hebrew Scriptures — it’s all right there in front of your face! And once we have that established, we primarily rely on his authority to establish the necessity of the crucifixion. He reaches a turning point in his ministry and begins mysteriously invoking this paradoxical event. He knows it’s coming and meets it with calm assurance. It’s the culmination of his mission on earth.
It’s often said that the Gospels are all Passion Narratives with introductory materials. Clearly the crucifixion is central to all their accounts. Yet I am beginning to suspect that the mountain of detail is meant to distract from the fact that they don’t know why it’s happening. It’s persuasion through repetition and ritualization — “Do this in memory of me!” Why? Because I said so. And if you don’t understand, you can take comfort that the original apostles, almost uniformly portrayed as bumbling dolts, didn’t understand either.
The most meaning we get is that it sets the apocalyptic sequence in motion by inaugurating the resurrection of the dead. But why this specific event? Paul begins to develop some ideas about its relationship to law and justice and human divisions — but for the Gospel writers, it basically happened because it happened. We have to trust that it’s the right thing because Jesus is the messiah and he knew what he was doing.