Book Review: Witness at the Cross

Witness at the Cross: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Friday
By: Amy-Jill Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a great gift to the churches. Over the years, her expertise as a New Testament scholar and her faith as an Orthodox Jew have shaped a stream of books helping Christians to better understand Jesus as a Jew and the Jewish origins of everything in the faith. She has unpacked the parables, the sermon on the mount, the “hard” or “difficult” sayings of Jesus, in her many publications. She has been part of a team of Jewish scholars who provided a commentary to the entire New Testament.

In this very accessible volume, she brings readers to the foot of the cross on which Jesus is crucified. She examines in detail many of the plays in the Passion we know from the Holy Week readings of the last days of Jesus’ life and his death by torture on the cross. Many are familiar with the device of putting ourselves into the place of these observers and active participants as well as those who out of fear, stayed away from the trial and the way to crucifixion, the execution itself and the deposition of the body from the cross and hasty burial. Here we encounter them all again: Pontius Pilate, the Jewish leaders, Judas, Simon of Cyrene, the women disciples who showed up at the cross and at the tomb three days’ later. We are invited to consider the thieves crucified along with Jesus, the soldiers who carry out and then stand guard over the execution. AJ also has us look more carefully at Herod and Caiphas as well as Joseph of Arimathea and Nikodemus, who organize the burial.

To enrich our identification with all these, AJ (as she prefers to be called), challenges the more traditional images we have of those who the gospels portray as the bystanders, scoffers, and observers of this Friday in Jerusalem. If we did not know it, we are given a succinct account of how and why crucifixion was used as a particularly horrific form of execution and deterrence to likely criminals. While there is little extended presentation of the identities of Simon of Cyrene, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, AJ helps us put them in context, while making the case for their strategic presence in the Passion narrative. The same holds true for the women disciples, some of who are named and others not, since these have been ignored, possibly obscured over the centuries despite their immense significance in holy week. After all, these women disciples are there to see a terrible act of torture in public, the destruction of their beloved rabbi. And they are the first to experience the tomb empty and the good news of the raising of Jesus, news they are mandated to bring back to the cowering male disciples, too afraid to be at the cross, still hiding in fear and grief. Not surprisingly, the good news of resurrection is rejected as hysteria and wishful thinking by these men, till they go to the tomb themselves or are put face to face with the Risen One.

AJ also has us look at the one male to stand at the cross, the “beloved disciple,” traditional understood to be John, the writer of the fourth gospel. Even the extraordinary natural events the gospels claim occur on that Friday—earthquake, the darkening of the sun, tombs opening up and more—are covered by AJ. Finally, what of the crucified one? Jesus too is contemplated and in manner more faithful to the gospel account than later forms of pious reflection.

There is a study to accompany the concise and lucid text. Together, we have here a rich and wonderful resource for either personal spiritual reading or a group study or a retreat. I was left hoping that AJ will turn to the empty tomb and post resurrection appearances of Jesus in another similar study.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Witness at the Cross: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Friday. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2021. xxi + 151 pages. $17.99. ISBN 9781791021122.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community
(Cascade, 2021) is his most recent book.

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