There is a long-running debate among biblical scholars (specifically of the New Testament variety) as to how to understand the one word from the cross that is reported in both the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46//Mark 15:34 NRSV). Both Gospels provide this line as a translation of the Aramaic that Jesus is reported to have called out (although there are minor variations in its spelling between the two).
No one questions that Jesus is here quoting the first line of Psalm 22, which Old Testament scholars label an “individual lament.” Here’s the debate: is Jesus expressing agony that, when his mission has at long last come to its crux (pun intended), his Father God has left him alone in the dark? (Hence, the traditional name of this line is the “Cry of Dereliction.”) Or is Jesus employing what scholars call an incipit (or “beginning”) method, by which his citation of the first line includes by reference the entire Psalm that follows? If so, we need to keep in mind how Psalm 22 concludes:
“To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; / Before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, / And I shall live for him. / Posterity will serve him; / Future generations will be told about the Lord, / And proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, / Saying that he has done it.” (Ps 22:29-31 NRSV)
If this is the intent, then Jesus intends the furthest thing from expressing abandonment. He is claiming that even on the far side of death, he will be praising God (and, of course, a traditional Christian reading would even see an expectation of the resurrection in “I shall live for him”).
I’d like to float an idea in this post that may or may not have merit. I am not a New Testament scholar, nor (candidly) have I researched others’ scholarship on this verse. I am simply aware of the dispute.
My modest proposal is to split the difference between the two Gospels and the two approaches. I do not do so out of some idealization of the “middle way,” whether under Anglican or Buddhist influence. Rather, my idea comes from a close observation of the two Gospels, particularly the immediate context of the quotation and especially in what regards they differ one from another.
For starters, Mark is unquestionably the darkest of the four canonical Gospels. Three times Jesus predicts his own suffering and death (and resurrection) to the utter incomprehension of the disciples. There is no indication in the crucifixion account that any friendly parties are present; the closest is the centurion, who observes (post-mortem): “Truly this man was God’s son” (in what is, for Mark, surely an inclusio with his claim in 1:1). Otherwise, Jesus dies alone in the dark, likely enough (as many scholars have suggested) as a prototype of what some of his followers were experiencing at the time of Mark’s composition.
I have explored Mark’s theology on this matter more extensively in an article in Valparaiso University’s journal, The Cresset: “What the ‘Hell’ in the Apostles’ Creed” (http://thecresset.org/2019/Advent/Heider_A19.html). In brief, I agree with a beloved college and seminary professor of mine that, above all in Mark, Jesus is experiencing “hell” in its most literal form as the utter absence of God—all for our sakes.
In Matthew, too, Jesus dies in the darkness and without any friends in sight. But there’s a big difference, recorded in Matt 27:51b-53:
“The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (NRSV)
Right there, hiding in plain sight, is an explicit reference to the resurrection yet to be, not simply of Jesus, but also of “many bodies of the saints.” It is hard for me to avoid the idea that Matthew does not have the same level of despair on Jesus’s lips as appears to be the case in Mark. That would all make sense, if Matthew is working with an incipit understanding of Jesus’s quotation from Psalm 22, inclusive of the Psalm’s end.
So, there you have it: not a terribly sophisticated argument, but rather an idea to run up the flagpole and see who salutes.