Who strikes the Shepherd?

Wed, 20/06/2012 - 12:26 -- James Oakley

In our Christianity Explored group last week, we were discussing Jesus' predictions of Peter's denials, and of his own suffering, death and resurrection, as a prelude to a very good session on Jesus' resurrection.

One of the members of the group asked a question about a detail that I had never noticed before in Mark's text:

And Jesus said to them, "You will all fall away, for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.'" (Mark 14:27)

The question was to ask who will strike the shepherd.

On the face of it, Jesus is quoting Old Testament prophecy, and the portion he quotes has the speaker as the one to strike the shepherd. A large proportion of Old Testament prophecy is written in direct speech, in the first person, with God as the speaker. If so, that would make God (the Father) the one who will strike the shepherd.

Jesus is quoting Zechariah 13:7 which reads like this:

"Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who stands next to me," declares the Lord of hosts. Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones.

In Zechariah, it's a sword that will strike the shepherd, but as God is addressing his sword it is nevertheless God's sword at work. The way Zechariah phrases it is helpful: Whilst it is not inaccurate to say that God will strike the shepherd, it is also true to say that the sword is somehow separate from God. God is not the one holding the handle. Phrasing it in this way stops God from being charged with doing wrong.

All the same, Jesus highlights the fact that the instruction to strike comes from God himself, so that it is simplified but nevertheless true to say that the Lord will strike the shepherd. This is, of course, entirely consistent with the rest of Mark's gospel, especially the cry from the cross as Jesus articulates how God has forsaken him.

That being so, Jesus is quoting and endorsing an Old Testament text that depicts God killing the sherpherd, the man who stands next to him. For all that Pilate, the soldiers, the chief priests and the crowd held the sword, Jesus is crystal clear it is God who strikes him down.

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