If you have not read Part 1 of this review concerning The Good, please do so first.
While there is much to be praised about this work historically, there are some oddities in some sections. This isn’t necessarily negative per se, although it may seem that way. For the most part, the oddities come down to authorial style. As in, why Dr. Varner chose to insert some of the thoughts below is indeed just that—a matter of choice. Of course, stylistic choices are not without intention. But wondering what exactly is that intention for some of these things is part of the reason why I classified them as odd. They not only do they seem out of place with the flow and purpose of a particular chapter, but, at times, they do not systematically harmonize with Scripture. Let’s look at chapter 6 concerning the Lord’s Supper as my first example.
The Passover Not Passing Over
Varner reveals the historical picture of the twelve disciples setting up for the Passover Seder. And before getting to his edifying thoughts on the four wine cups they shared at the meal, and how the third cup “represented his blood shed for the “redemption” of our sins” (p. 55; Varner’s quotation around “redemption” is another oddity, but explored in part 3 of this review), he tells us how they would have hastily prepared the meal. He details that not only did they have a small window of time to prepare and eat all of it as the Torah required (Exodus 12:8), but also that the sprinkling of the blood on the doorposts was never repeated since that act was only intended for that night in Egypt (p. 53).
But then he oddly inserts how sometimes it is assumed that Passover means that “the Lord in some way ‘jumped over’ each house, thus sparing the inhabitants from being killed by him” (p. 53). He goes on say that “the biblical text, however, is clear, that the image was the Lord passing over each house to cover and protect it, not passing by it” (emphasis original). His point was that the action of passing over each home meant God’s protection against the destroyer from killing the first born, not just him skipping over the home. Something he says is clearly depicted in Exodus 12:23 and later poetically described in Psalm 78:49 (p. 54).
This is odd because not only is it making a distinction without making a difference, but both aspects above can be clearly seen. God is both passing by (over) the place where the blood is present (Exod. 12:23), but it’s the presence of the blood that protects them. Moreover, “passover” in English (coined by William Tyndale) and the in Hebrew both fundamentally illustrate this point of passing over a home in omission of judgment. In other words, where the blood is seen, God/Destroyer would not kill. But I suspect that such a distinction may be influenced by Varner’s view concerning the atonement.
The Pharisees Didn’t Condemn Jesus
Chapter 4 is a informative chapter on the relationship that the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians had with Jesus, as well as their role in his crucifixion. And though Varner does not excuse the Pharisees from their actions and hypocrisy, he points out two things: 1) that not all of them were bad, like Joseph of Arimathea (p. 32), and 2) that it was the Sadducees and high priestly rulers (who are also Sadducees) who arrested him, tried him, condemned him, and handed him over to Pilate, not the Pharisees.
The fact that not all the Pharisees were against Jesus is worth noting, but they were in fact integral players in his crucifixion. In John 11:53, it was the high priests and Pharisees that plotted to put him to death. And in verse 57, it was both groups that gave commands to give up Jesus’ location after he withdrew from the public so that they can arrest him. And, in John 18:3, when Judas betrayed Jesus, it says that he rounded up “a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees.” And finally in verse 12 of the same chapter, it says that those officers arrested and bound Jesus, and took him to Annas.
Such a small omission is fairly trivial. And though Varner did qualify his conclusion by stating that it was in the synoptic Gospels that the Pharisees drop out of the crucifixion account, I still found this conclusion and qualification odd in light of the rest of Scripture. It would be safe to assume, then, that there were Pharisees who plotted, arrested, and delivered Jesus to be killed, although I would agree with Varner that not all of them did.
Omitting God’s Wrath
In Chapter 8, after Varner details why he believes Gethsemane wasn’t a garden, but a cave (see part 1), he expounds upon the agony of Christ at that place (p.62). After he described how Christ’s earlier temptations in the wilderness by Satan was during his greatest physical weakness, he goes on to say:
Here in Gethsemane was a greater weakness than lack of food — the agony of facing a horrendous death by bearing a world of sins — that caused him to ask his Father to take away the cup he was being asked to drink. (p. 62; emphasis mine)
Many may not blink twice at this, but it is odd that Varner omits Jesus facing the agony of God’s wrath. I’m not saying that what he wrote is unbiblical, but what is written is worth sitting up and taking note of. This, included with the word redemption in quotations above, and my concerns shared in the next section (part 3) about the atonement, make this choice of wording worth paying attention to. This doesn’t mean that Varner denies Jesus bearing God’s wrath, but since many do, I pay attention. Therefore, this omission certainly necessitates more clarification.
(Note: In my experience, I have debated those that believe Jesus facing death itself is what he feared. There are others who believe that God’s wrath was demonstrated in that Jesus was allowed to be tortured by man, and hung on a cross, facing humiliation like a criminal. Neither of these or any others like these, that negate God’s wrath as an action taken by the Father are biblically sufficient. Anything short of Jesus facing the Father’s wrath in our place diminishes and weakens an essential component of understanding penal substitutionary atonement. Something I will reemphasize in part 3).
Judas Pushing Jesus to Revolt
Also in chapter 8, Varner propositions another controversial proposal as to why Judas betrayed Jesus; he believes “his avarice is just too simple an explanation for what he did” (p.63). According to Varner, if money was all Judas wanted, why did he throw it back when Jesus was arrested? I will explain that in a second, but his explanation is this: Jesus was expected, even by the disciples, to physically bring in the kingdom, which would involve the overthrow of the Romans, even if it had to happen by force (p.63). This indeed is an almost universally accepted fact. Moreover, according to Varner, Judas most likely became “disillusioned” when the Triumphant Entry of Christ did not result in the Roman revolt, and this squelched his ideological plans to be “Secretary of Treasury” in the kingdom (p. 64). Because of these, Judas tries to “push the Savior’s hand to violently resist this arrest” (p. 64). But when he saw that this didn’t happen, he threw the money back and hung himself.
Though Varner explicitly notes that his thoughts do not excuse or downplay Judas’ greed, his thoughts struck me as odd because Scripture repeatedly teaches that Judas’ avarice was indeed the very reason why he betrayed Christ. In John 12:6, Judas was identified as a thief. In John 6:70, Jesus reveals the “devilish” person Judas was already. And in Matthew 26:14–15, coincidentally after the discourse concerning the very expensive oil being poured on Christ, Judas approaches the chief priest concerning what they were willing to give him in return for Christ. And after they agreed to pay him thirty pieces, he was actively looking for an opportunity (ἐζήτει πῶς εὐκαίρως — c.f. Mark 14:11) so that he could betray Jesus (ἐζήτει εὐκαιρίαν ἵνα αὐτὸν παραδῷ — Matt. 26:16).
In other words, it was because of the money that Judas held up his end of the bargain. Judas wasn’t trying to push Jesus to revolt or resist. He had already plotted to deliver him over. And, it says in Matt 27:3–5, that after he saw that Jesus was condemned (not that he didn’t violently resist), he felt remorse (μεταμέλομαι) because he realized that he betrayed innocent blood (v. 4). And though Varner himself wouldn’t disavow Judas’ avarice, his point about something more complex going on (p. 63) in the mind of Judas was an odd point to make, seeing that it was clearly because of his love for money he betrayed Jesus. Nevertheless, it was an interesting idea.
I must reemphasize there is still much historical value to this book. And by way of reminder, the oddities written here are thoughts to consider, but nothing to be too alarmed by. The fact that Varner went out on a limb on many of these thoughts by labeling them “controversial” shows that he anticipated some disagreement. Nevertheless, in the next part is where we must take Varner’s theological conclusions seriously. For they land squarely on the most important area of study: the atonement of Christ.
-Until we go home
Please come back Monday to read part 3: (The Concerning)
Varner, William. Passionate about the Passion Week: A Fresh Look at Jesus’ Last Days. Dallas: Fontes Press, 2020.