Sunday, October 27, 2013

Did God the Father Forsake Jesus On the Cross?

The words, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" have troubled many Christians. This is one of the most well-known sayings of Jesus (recorded in two Gospels: Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34). Was Jesus literally forsaken by God? I personally don't think so. 

The Aramaic New Testament uses the phrase, "Eil, Eil, lamana shwaqthani?". Jesus was clearly quoting Psalms 22, which opens with these words. In Hebrew it says, "Eli, Eli, lamah, azbatani?" The Psalm opens with the despair of King David and his cry to God for help, but the Psalm ends on a totally different note. The Psalm ends with David praising God for His deliverance. Psalms 22 is not only similar to Jesus' crucifixion in this respect, but also in the fact that it describes the crucifixion in great detail before this instrument of torture and execution was devised (verses 14-17). 

This establishes the fact that Psalm 22 is a Messianic Psalm, prophetic of the suffering of our Lord Jesus the Messiah. Psalm 22 was also a very well-known Psalm around the time of the crucifixion (and still is now, for obvious reasons). So when Jesus quoted the first verse, those who could understand Him (many thought He was crying for Elijah, which is Aramaic is Eliya and in Hebrew is Eliyahu, as you can see in Matthew 27:47), probably would have connected the dots and came to see that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. 

What I am saying here, is that Jesus is making another claim to the Messianic office during His crucifixion, which was clearly prophesied of by King David in Psalm 22 and the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 53. This though, is not the only explanation for this difficult verse.

Apostolic theologian Jason Dulle suggests that Jesus is merely expressing His anguish by quoting the 22nd Psalm. David felt forsaken but clearly knew that God hadn't (read the whole Psalm and you'll see what I mean). In the same way, Jesus felt forsaken, but He knew God hadn't abandoned Him. 

Another explanation that is brought forth by Aramaic speaking scholars is that "shwaqthani" (commonly transliterated as "sabachthani"), is mistranslated and misunderstood. George M. Lamsa, a native Aramaic-speaking scholar, translates Matthew 27:46 as, "And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice and said, Eli, Eli, lmana shabachthani! which means, My God, my God, for this I was spared!" 

"Shwaq" is the root of "shwaqthani" and it can be translated as follows: "forgive", "leave", or "allow". The problem with Lamsa's translation is that the Aramaic word "lamana" is used for questions. Paul Younan, another native Aramaic speaker, translates it this way, "And about the ninth hour, Yeshua cried out with a load voice and said, My God! My God! Why have you spared me?" Younan has explained this as Jesus, who had been suffering for six hours, saying "Why must this go on? Let's get this over with!" People who believe "shwaq" should be translated as "spared", cite John 16:32 as evidence that Jesus could not have been forsaken by God. The Peshitta Old Testament translation of Psalms 22:1 uses the same words as that of Jesus on the cross. The word "azbatani" that is used in the original Hebrew can only mean "forsaken" or "left", while "shwaq" can mean "forgive", "leave", or "allow" (as stated previously).

I personally think that "forsaken" or "left" best fits the context of the crucifixion. Matthew records the people mocking Jesus, using the same phrases used in the 22nd Psalm (compare Psalm 22:8 with Matthew 27:43). But I believe that Jesus merely felt forsaken, and was expressing His feelings of abandonment by quoting David's words. Jesus was not saying that God had forsaken Him, but that He felt alone. Jesus was also showing us another example of how the Tanakh (Old Testament) Scriptures point to Him as ha-Mashiyach (the Messiah or the Christ, the Anointed One).

UPDATE: I was wrong to state that the Hebrew "azbathani" only means "forsaken". Native Aramaic speaker Paul Younan told me the following: 'The blog assertion that a-z-b in Hebrew cannot mean "spared", "forgiven" or "reserved" is incorrect. It indeed does have those shades of meaning in Hebrew, Arabic and in the Akkadian root from which both are drawn.' I confirmed this by using my new Young's Concordance, and Robert Young confirms that "help" is a possible, but not exact, translation of "azbathani". After I asked him about the Assyrian Church of the East's traditional teaching on this, Brother Paul Younan also told me, 'The concept of God having "forsaken" Himself, or the concept of the Messiah having uttered such a thing as the English implies with the implication of that term, is a completely foreign concept in the understanding and patristic history of the CoE [Church of the East].'