The Passion account read at Mass on Palm Sunday this year was taken from the Gospel of Luke: "The men who held Jesus in custody were ridiculing and beating him. They blindfolded him and questioned him, saying, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ And they reviled him in saying many other things against him" (Luke 22:63¯65, in the New American Bible translation).
"Reviled" is the translators’ rendering of the active participle blasphemountes . In the King James Version, we get an adverb that is cognate and closer to the Greek: "And many other things blasphemously spake they against him." The semantic range of blasphemountes may be wide enough to include slander against men and God alike, but the English blaspheming is likely to be taken to mean slander against God only.
Neither the King James Version nor the New American Bible conveys the ambiguity of the word in the Greek original. For the Christian reader aware of Christ’s divine as well as human nature, blasphemountes points to both, while for the Roman soldiers it might have pointed only to the human. Interpreting blasphemountes from the viewpoint of the soldiers, the translators of the NAB arrive at a statement of fact that is neutral (the men who held Jesus in custody reviled him) as opposed to a statement of fact that is controverted (their reviling of him was blasphemous). What is controverted about it is the implication of Jesus’ divinity, and in the NAB translation Luke is represented as foregoing, at least at 22:65, any reference to that divinity.
"And they reviled him in saying many other things against him." Here as throughout so much of the New Testament and, for that matter, the Old Testament, the style is remarkable for its restraint. What those other things said to Jesus might have been are left to the imagination.
Consider the first words of the passage: "the men." Luke calls them Andres , "men" in the gendered sense, not anthropoi , "men" in the generic sense, which in English is now often deemed antiquated and sexist and replaced by people , human beings , those , or some other gender-neutral term. Anthropoi is the more common noun. Anthropos is what Pilate calls the beaten and bloodied Jesus, for example. "Idou ho anthropos!" we read in the Gospel of John. You know the familiar Latin translation, "Ecce homo!" Pointedly, I think, Pilate does not say, "Ecce vir!"
"I am a worm and no man," Jesus says, as Christians understand Psalm 22, verses of which were also recited on Palm Sunday. The son of David and heir to the throne of Israel has waived his claim to it until the appointed hour. "He that is chief, let him be as he that doth serve" (Luke 22:26), Jesus tells his Apostles at the Last Supper, at which he takes up a basin and washes and wipes their feet (John 13:4¯17). As Holy Thursday gives way to Good Friday, the suffering servant now submits himself to the role of outright sacrificial victim. Jesus accepts not only execution and not only preliminary torture but specifically mental torture, the result of the utmost degradation concentrated into a single day.
His subjective experience of the physical pains he suffers from his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane through his crucifixion on Mount Calvary is not explicitly described anywhere in the gospels, as Scripture tends toward reticence in matters that modern readers expect to hear shouted about in loud voices accompanied by strong background music. ("The deepest feeling," the poet Marianne Moore wrote, "always shows itself in silence; not in silence, but restraint.") But he is a human being and so we know, without having to be told, that he feels the whip on his back, the thorns in his scalp, the nails in his hands and feet. His woe at the effect those sharp objects have on his nerve endings is the worthy subject of many traditional Christian devotions and meditations on the Passion.
If the blood and sweat were once commonly understood to imply as well the psychological pains inflicted on him by you and me (that is, by the authorities who persecute him, his neighbors who deride him, his friends who abandon him), that understanding has waned. It has waned in part because the overall insult to which we subject Jesus’ dignity cannot be divested of the particular barbs we insinuate into his masculine identity. Just as the modern citizen of a democracy, contemplating the crown of thorns, might still wince at the instrument of torture but not, or not so easily, at the implied slur on Christ’s kingship, so the feminist might feel sympathy for Christ crucified as a human being but not, or not so easily, for Christ crucified as a man.
Much has been speculated and much probably remains to be said about Holy Saturday, about what it means for Christ to have descended into hell, about whether the central affliction in his Passion and death was the Father’s withdrawal of his love for the Son. To those who look on the scene without faith, the dead man hanging on the cross is defeated and pathetic, the picture of powerlessness, the antithesis of the alpha male¯or rather the alpha male suddenly deflated¯"I perceive that virtue is gone out of me" (Luke 8:46), as you realize when you remember that here is the man whom only a week ago crowds were jostling to be near, the man who performed mighty miracles, talked back to the authorities, turned over the tables of the moneychangers in his Father’s house, and set all of Judea and Galilee on its head.
From Jesus’ human nature sacrificed on Calvary his manhood cannot be extricated. And he would not have been able to sacrifice it had he not had it to sacrifice in the first place. "And there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (Matt. 19:12).
Nicholas Frankovich is managing editor of Fordham University Press.