One of the inevitabilties of Holy Week and Easter, it seems, is a sermon, meditation or blog post on the Greek of Jesus final word from the cross in John’s gospel: “It is finished.” (No links: I’m not getting at any one specific person or instance) And nothing wrong with that; after all, when would be a more appropriate time?
But I do find myself bristling at the easy assumption that in this saying Jesus himself gives us the final interpretation of his sacrifice as a penal substitutionary atonement. “Tetelestai”, the preacher says (rolling the word round his tongue and emphasising the apparent veracity of the interpretation with a rare excursion into Greek) Jesus said: “Paid in full.” and from that he (it usually is a he!) segues into the whole penal substitution thing.
I shall lay to one side any questioning of the historical naïveté which assumes John is simply recording what happened. I shan’t even comment on the obvious problem that John’s story is in Greek, and yet it is highly unlikely even on the most historicist reading of the gospel that a first century Palestinian Jew made his dying declaration in a foreign language, and with our preacher’s modern Erasmian pronunciation to boot.
No. I shall content myself with arguing that this was not what John intended as the primary meaning of his text. I grant you that John often seems deliberately to have opened his text to multiple meanings and plural readings, and it is not impossible that his choice of words does carry the added ambiguity of payment. But I think there are cogent reasons for saying his primary meaning is different.
First, it has to be said that the attestation of “tetelestai” – τετέλεσται as a word prefixing receipts referred to by Moulton and Milligan’s classic lexicon is largely 2nd century (and Egyptian).But that simply urges caution.
Next comes John’s language of sin. He consistently, and without variation of style, uses the language of hamartia (ἁμαρτία) / hamartanō (ἁμαρτάνω) / hamartōlos (ἁμαρτωλός). This is the metaphor for “missing the mark”, or erring. The language of debt is missing as a metaphor for sin in John.
But then there is a more positive, but not exact pointer. Although John only uses the verb “to finish – τελέω” at the cross, he does make use elsewhere in the gospel of the very closely related verb “to complete – τελειόω” here and elsewhere.
Here, it is “that the scripture might be completed” that Jesus says “It is finished.” (19:28,30). Elsewhere in the gospel John appears to use the word complete much as the word finish. So:
- My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete (τελειώσω) his work. (4:34)
- The works that the Father has given me to complete (τελειώσω), the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. (5:36)
- I glorified you on earth by finishing (τελειώσας) the work that you gave me to do. (17:4)
In this context the second of those is particularly interesting. The context is the debate about Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. As part of the debate which follows, Jesus justifies working on the sabbath (including this work of healing) as follows: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” God has not yet reached his sabbath rest, the end of his work, and so Jesus sees no need to keep it.
If we place that understanding into the narrative of the gospel, then Jesus says “It is finished” to complete the scripture, at the end of Friday afternoon. Jesus rests in the tomb on the seventh day having finished his and the Father’s work, and then on the first day of the week, while it is still dark … and we’re back, more allusively to that “In the beginning …” by which John signalled all along he was telling the story of creation in which what came to being in Jesus was life, and the light of all people, the light that shines in the darkness.
The language, and the narrative logic, seem to me to work together to suggest that what is finished on the cross, as far as John is concerned, is first and foremost the work of (new) creation. I wouldn’t care to rule out other meanings entirely, but I think that any interpretation which makes debt primary is listening more to a particular tradition than the text John wrote.