02 April 2010

Witnessing the Crucifixion—St Chrysostom on Galatians 3:1

In the first verse of the third chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians, the Holy Apostle Paul writes: ‘O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth [προεγράφη], crucified among you?’

A few years ago, when Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ movie came out, there was a little debate on an Orthodox e-mail list I used to belong to about whether it was a good idea to make or see movies like this. One fellow, who seemed to have no capacity for deep, critical thought whatsoever, could see nothing even potentially questionable about such a film. He claimed it was no different from a ‘mystery play’, and when those were called un-Orthodox, quoted this verse from Galatians with the comment, ‘It sounds like the Galatians had themselves a nice little mystery play about the Crucifixion!’

Now, I’m not sure I could have come up with a good explanation of this passage off the top of my head, but for precisely that reason I asked the fellow whether he had bothered to consult any of the Fathers or even any scholarly writers on the subject before proffering this apparently idiosyncratic opinion. The response was that he didn’t have the kind of bibliographical resources that some of us did and, in a nutshell, couldn’t be bothered to consult the Church’s teaching before promulgating whatever reading happened to suit him.

At the time, I myself didn’t have quite as many books lying around as I do now, but as it happened, an enormous library was quite unnecessary. The first source I turned to was my trusty Holy Apostles Convent Orthodox New Testament, Vol. 2: Acts, Epistles, & Revelation (Buena Vista, CO: HAC, 1999). I quickly found the endnote for the second part of Galatians 3:1, where there is a quote from St John Chrysostom’s Explanatory Notes for the Epistle to Galatians:

Yet He was not crucified in the Galatian country, but in Jerusalem. How then says he, ‘among you’ (ἐν ὑμῖν)? It shows the strength of faith and the power to see events which are at a distance. He says not, ‘crucified’, but ‘openly set forth among you crucified’ (προεγράφη ἐν ὑμῖν ἐσταυρωμένος), declaring that by the eye of faith they behold more accurately than the many who were present as spectators. For many of those spectators received no benefit, but the Galatians, who were not eyewitnesses, saw it by faith more accurately. (pp. 253-4)

Well, I thought this rather remarkable, because not only did it fail to support this fellow’s interpretation, but it actually showed that St Paul was making the opposite point to the one our friend had claimed he was making. Not only had the Galatians not seen an actor pretending to be Christ crucified, but St John Chrysostom was saying that ‘before whose eyes’ referred to the eyes of faith, by which we see Christ crucified in a manner even greater than we would have had we been physically present at the historical Crucifixion itelf. In other words, it is not necessary to physically witness the Crucifixion, much less an ultra-realistic but ultimately phony attempt to reproduce the physical spectacle. For by faith we see accurately that to which ‘eyewitnesses’ were completely blind: that God hath been crucified in the flesh, taking away the sin of the world and granting us great mercy.

In conclusion, I would like to recommend that all those in search of some edifying literary material for this holy day read Anton Chekhov’s short story, ‘The Student’. It can be found here, along with a more authoritative recommendation, at the now-defunct Ora et Labora, the former ‘flagship Orthodox blog’.


Ariston said...

I would be very interested in an expanded conversation on the "Passion" film from an Orthodox perspective. I have to admit to being torn between my misgivings with it as a piece of religious work and my admiration for it as a film.

Ariston said...
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Ariston said...
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Hilarius said...

Thank you for this - I have always wondered about that passage and whether the way in which Christ has been set forth before their eyes crucified is perhaps sacramentally, and specifically through being buried with him in baptism in faith (see, e.g., Gal. 2:16-20 and 3:27) for, as St. Paul says, we are here crucified with him.

Anonymous said...

Edifying as always, Aaron!