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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Online review only, listed in Volume 56, 2008

SCAER, PETER J., The Lukan Passion and the Praiseworthy Death. (New Testament Monographs 10; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005). Pp. 155. Hardback. 40.00; scholar’s price 20.00.

The Lukan Passion and the Praiseworthy Death offers a clearly written and well organised investigation of Luke’s use of Greco-Roman and Hellenistic Jewish traditions of noble death. Reminding the reader that crucifixion was seen as shameful in the ancient Greco-Roman world, Peter Scaer argues that Luke was an apologist for the crucifixion: “As part of his apologetic thrust, Luke intended to demonstrate that Jesus’ death was, in fact, honorable and praiseworthy” (3). What Scaer brings to the existing scholarship on this topic is a focus on the rhetoric used to convey the values of a praiseworthy death.

Scaer argues that the author of the Gospel of Luke, as “a cultured and cosmopolitan writer of some sophistication,” was well schooled in the skills of rhetoric and “capable of drawing inspiration from many and varied resources” (9). The resources Scaer considers are the cultural values of praiseworthy death as embedded in Greco-Roman rhetoric; the tradition of Socrates’ noble death; and the Jewish martyrological tradition, as found in the books of Maccabees and the work of Josephus. In presenting the values of praiseworthy death, Scaer analyses: i) a tradition of Aristotelian rhetoric, especially in relation to the presentation of noble death in Cicero and Pseudo-Cicero; ii) Athenian funeral speeches, especially in Thucydides, Lysias, Plato, Demosthenes and Hyperides; iii) examples of the rhetoric surrounding death in the Protogymnastica, especially Theon and Aphthonius; iv) aspects of noble deaths described in Plutarch’s Lives. The motifs of courage, righteousness, willingness to die, victory, benefit to others, uniqueness and timeliness, and posthumous honours emerge as common central features of a praiseworthy death tradition that the author argues would have been familiar to Luke.

That Luke was schooled in rhetoric is suggested not only by his prefaces to the Gospel and Acts, the use of the genres of symposia and speeches, but also by his encomiastic portrayal of Jesus, especially in the infancy narratives, the comparison with John the Baptist, and in the way Jesus’ actions are depicted, for example, as just, righteous, wise, courageous and beneficent. In Scaer’s final chapter, after noting the omissions and additions particular, among the synoptics, to Luke’s passion narrative, he argues that Luke drew on the tradition of praiseworthy death outlined above. He points especially to the Lukan motifs of divine will (βουλη), necessity (signified by δει) and benefaction, that is, Jesus’ acting for the sake of others.

In his analysis of the tradition of Socrates’ noble death, however, Scaer finds
little conclusive evidence that Luke drew substantially on that tradition. He concludes, similarly, that the evidence for Luke’s use of martyrological themes is not strong. Nevertheless, Scaer comments that while numbers of motifs are shared between the values of a praiseworthy death as transmitted in the rhetorical tradition, the noble death of Socrates, and the deaths of Jewish martyrs, some motifs unique to the Socrates and martyrological narratives do appear in Luke. For Scaer, it is likely that the centurion’s declaration “Certainly this man was innocent/righteous” (23:47) alludes to the righteous (and innocent) Socrates’ noble death. He suggests, too, that in 22:44 the blood and sweat refer to the athletic imagery employed in the martyrological tradition.

The discussion of 22:43–44 is interesting both for Scaer’s argument and for its contribution to the text critical issue. He argues that agönia, translated “anguish” in the NRSV, may refer rather to the wider theme in Luke of battle against, and victory over, Satan (4:1–13; 22:3, 31, 53). Related to this, too, is the imagery of athletic contest which carries themes common to the noble death tradition. Rather than demonstrating his weakness in the face of death, Jesus’ agony in Luke indicates his “courage, virtue and victory” (101).

With careful attention to Greek, Roman, and Hellenistic Jewish sources, The Lukan Passion and the Praiseworthy Death argues clearly that Luke portrays the death of Jesus as honorable by characterising Jesus as exhibiting the values of praiseworthy death in the rhetorical tradition and by alluding to the noble deaths of Socrates and Jewish martyrs. Tables, offering a synthesis of the values found across a variety of authors, and summaries at the end of each major section and chapter help consolidate the argument. Scaer’s study also touches briefly on other important questions for Lukan studies, including the nature of the Gospel of Luke in relation to the ancient genres of encomiastic biography and history. This is an interesting study which carefully situates the Lukan passion narrative and its author in their socio-cultural context.

Review by
Anne Elvey
Research Scholar
Melbourne College of Divinity & Honorary Research Associate
Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies
Monash University VIC