Crucified Messiah Other Essays

1HengelMartin, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (London: SCM; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).

2Origen, Contra Celsum6.10.

3Ibid., 2.9.

4Ibid., 2.24.

5Ibid., 2.38.

6Ibid., 2.42.

7Homer, Iliad9.412–13; the translation is cited from LattimoreRichard, The Iliad of Homer (Chicago/London: University of Chicago, 1951) 209. On the noble death in antiquity, see DrogeArthur J. and TaborJames D., A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom among Christians and Jews in Antiquity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) and SeeleyDavid, The Noble Death: Graeco-Roman Martyrology and Paul's Concept of Salvation (JSNTSup 28; Sheffield: JSOT, 1990).

8Homer, Iliad22.303–5; Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, 443.

9HerodotusHistory1.30; Greek text and translation from GodleyA. D., Herodotus (4 vols.; LCL; London: Heinemann/New York: Putnam's Sons, 1931) 1.34–5.

10CiceroTusculan Disputations1.71–4; for discussion see DöringKlaus, Exemplum Socratis: Studien zur Sokratesnachwirkung in der kynisch-stoischen Popularphilosophie der frühen Kaiserzeit and im frühen Christentum (Hermes Einzelschriften 42; Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1979) 39.

11 See CollinsAdela Yarbro, ‘The Genre of the Passion Narrative’, Studia Theologica: Scandinavian Journal of Theology47 (1993) 3–28, especially 13 and the literature cited there.

12 See Döring, Exemplum Socratis, 16–20; see index b under ‘Gefangenschaft und Tod des S[okrates]’ for further passages.

13 2 Maccabees 6–7; 4 Maccabees 5–18; for discussion see CollinsYarbro. ‘The Genre of the Passion Narrative’, 7–11. See also the account of the death of Razis in 2 Mace 14.37–46.

14Dörìng, Exemplum Socratis, 143–61.

15 E.g., the death of Adam in Gen 5.5; Westermann calls the genealogy a type of enumerative narrative (WestermannClaus, Genesis 1–11: A Commentary [Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1974; ET 1984] 6–18).

16 E.g., the death of Deborah, Rebekah's nurse (Gen 35.8); this is another type of enumerative narrative (WestermannClaus, Genesis 12–36: A Commentary [Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1981; ET: 1985] 36, 552).

17 E.g., the report of Jacob's death, which is a redactional product including an oath regarding his burial, blessings, prophecy, accounts of mourning and burial (Gen 47.28–50.14). See also the accounts of death which include a farewell discourse (e.g., Moses in Deuteronomy 31–4; and Joshua in Joshua 23.1–24.31) and the notices (i.e., brief reports) of death and burial in the context of a regnal resumé (e.g., David in 1 Kings 2.10–12a; see Burke O. Long, 1 Kings [The Forms of the Old Testament Literature 9; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984] 22, 160–4, 259 and idem, 2 Kings [FOTL 10; 1991] 109; see also De VriesSimon J., who speaks of a death and burial formula, 1 and 2 Chronicles [FOTL 11; 1989] 346).

18 For discussion see CollinsYarbro, ‘The Genre of the Passion Narrative’, 6–7.

19Ibid., 9–10.


21 E.g., the deaths of Diodorus (LaertiusDiogenesLives2.112), Stilpo (2.120), Menedemus (2.144), Speusippus (4.3), Arcesilaus (4.44–5), Lacydes (4.61), Lyco (5.68), Menippus (6.100), and Ariston (7.164). Lucian's account of the death of Alexander, whom he dubbed ‘the pseudoprophet’, belongs in this category as well. Whereas he had predicted that he himself was fated to live 150 years and die by a stroke of lightning, Lucian reports that he actually died from a mortified leg, complete with maggots, and that the medical treatment exposed his baldness (Alexander the False Prophet 59).

22PlutarchParallel Lives, Comparison of Demosthenes and Cicero5; for a Greek text and English translation, see PerrinBernadotte, Plutarch's Lives (11 vols.; LCL; Cambridge: Harvard University/London: Heinemann, 1986) 7.220–1.

23HeschelAbraham J., The Prophets Part 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1962) 3–6.

24Ibid., 18–20.

25CullmannOscar, ‘Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead: The Witness of the New Testament’, in Immortality and Resurrection (ed. StendahlKrister; New York: Macmillan, 1965) 9–53, especially 12–20.

26SchillerFriedrich, ‘On the Pathetic’, Schiller's Works, Aesthetical and Philosophical Essays (London: George Bell & Sons, 1898) 142–68; citations are from pp. 143 and 147; for the German original, see Friedrich Schiller: Werke und Briefe (12 vols.; Bibliothek Deutscher Klassiker 78; ed. Otto Dann et al.; Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker, 1988–) vol. 8; Theoretische Schriften (ed. JanzRolf-Peter; 1992) 423–51, especially 423–4 and 428; this work was cited by Heschel, The Prophets, 271. Pathos, as described by Schiller, is characteristic of the tragedies of Seneca; see, for example, Hercules Oetaeus 796–807, in which the sufferings of Heracles from the poisoned garment are described.

27 A widespread theory about the earliest understanding of the death of Jesus is that it was interpreted in terms of the Biblical and Jewish motif of the suffering just person. This theory was proposed by RuppertLothar (Jesus als der leidende Gerechte? Der Weg Jesu im Lichte eines alt- und zwischentestamentlichen Motivs [SBS 59; Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1972]). If the earliest recoverable Christian traditions about Jesus' death are already associated with his role as messiah, it is unnecessary to posit a stage at which the motif of the passio iusti was the only model for the interpretation of his death. Although the motif is not explicit in the Gospel of Mark, it does play a role in the accounts of Matthew and Luke. For further discussion, see CollinsYarbro, ‘The Genre of the Passion Narrative’, 4–5.

28 So also HengelMartin, ‘Jesus, der Messias Israels’, in Messiah and Christos: Studies in the Jewish Origins of Christianity Presented to David Flusser (ed. GruenwaldIthamar, ShakedShaul, and StroumsaGedaliahu; Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 1992) 155–76, especially 165–70; idem, The Charismatic Leader and His Followers (Studies of the New Testament and its World; New York: Crossroad, 1981) 39; see also DahlNils A., ‘Der gekreuzigte Messias’, in Der historische Jesus und der kerygmatische Christus (ed. RistowH. and MatthiaeK.; Berlin: Evangelische, 1960) 157–69; ET: idem, ‘The Crucified Messiah’, in idem, The Crucified Messiah (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1974) 10–36.

29 There was of course considerable diversity of eschatological expectation in contemporary Judaism; but the identification of Jesus as an anointed one, apparently as the Davidic messiah, in the earliest Christian traditions about his death and eschatological role is the focus here. See also the article by Nils Dahl cited in the next note.

30 Nils Dahl has argued that it is highly probable that Jesus was crucified as the King of the Jews, i.e., as a messianic pretender, and that this fact is at the basis of the developing tradition of the passion narrative (DahlN. A. [revised by D. H. Juel], ‘Messianic Ideas and the Crucifixion of Jesus’, The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity [ed. CharlesworthJ. H.; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992] 382–403; reference is to p. 390). It is not clear, however, whether he concludes that this was an understandable mistake made by the opponents of Jesus or whether a significant number of Jesus' followers acclaimed him as a messianic leader (ibid., 402–3). Dahl describes his work, in effect, as a retrieval of J. Wellhausen's thesis that the crucifixion of Jesus caused a radical alteration of the concept ‘Messiah’.

31 I use the phrase ‘Christian faith’ here to mean a religious perspective arising from the acclamation of Jesus as the messiah. This religious perspective and the social formation associated with it may be seen, on the one hand, as one form of Jewish messianism among many; on the other, it may be viewed as the beginning of a process that eventually led to the separation of Christianity, as a religion with its own institutions, from Judaism.

32 See CollinsAdela Yarbro, The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992) 92–118. An English translation of the reconstructed text may be found in eadem, ‘The Genre of the Passion Narrative’, 21–2.

33SchenkeLudger, Studien zur Passionsgeschichte des Markus: Tradition und Redaktion in Markus 14.1–42 (Würzburg: Echter, 1971) 353, 360–2, 423, 561.

34 Pss 42.6,12; 43.5 MT; Pss 41.6,12; 42.5 LXX (ed. Rahlfs); 42.5,11; 43.5 RSV. On the use of Psalm 42/43 in the Gospel of John, see BeutlerJohannes, ‘Psalm 42/43 im Johannesevangelium’, NTS25 (1983) 33–57; idem, Habt keine Angst: Die erste johanneische Abschiedsrede (Joh 14)(SBS 116; Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1984) 25–46.

35 See GerstenbergerErhard S., Psalms Part 1 (FOTL 14; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988) 178–82.

36 On Christ as the speaker of the psalms in early Christian texts, see HaysRichard B., ‘Christ Prays the Psalms: Paul's Use of an Early Christian Exegetical Convention’, The Future of Christology: Essays in Honor of Leander E. Keck (ed. MalherbeA. J. and MeeksW. A.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) 122–36.

37 This technique of interpretation is analogous to one employed by the authors of p˘˘πárîm (commentaries on biblical texts) found at Qumran. The latter is described by HorganMaurya P. as follows: ‘The pesher may follow the action, ideas, and words of the lemma closely, developing a similar description in a different context’ (eadem, Pesharim: Qumran Interpretations of Biblical Books [CBQMS 8; Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1979] 244). It is exemplified by the apparent identification of the kings who bring gifts to God in Psalm 68.30 with ‘the Kittim’ in lQpPs frg. 9.1–2 (see ibid., 67–8). It is also noteworthy that those who produced the p˘šārîm understood the psalms, as well as the prophetic books in the narrow sense, as prophecies of the history of their community, including the past, present, and the future (ibid., 248–9).

38 Ps 42.11 MT; 41.11 LXX (ed. Rahlfs); 42.10 RSV; the LXX differs from the MT and reads ν τῷ καταθλσαι τ στ μον ὠνεδισν με οἱ θλβοντς με

39 For an analysis and interpretation of this text, see SassonJack M., Jonah (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1990) 269–320, especially 306–7, 316–20.

40 See Matt 12.39–41; cf. Matt 16.4; Luke 11.29–30, 32.

41 For a summary and brief discussion of the evidence, see GoppeltLeonhard, ποτριον, TDNT6 (1968) 149–51.

42 Jer 51.7.

43 For discussion, see BestErnest, The Temptation and the Passion: The Markan Soteriology (SNTSMS 2; 2nd ed.; Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University, 1990) lxvi, 153.

44 On the likelihood of Christian and Jewish women authoring written works in the Greco-Roman period, see KraemerRoss S., ‘Women's Authorship of Jewish and Christian Literature in the Greco-Roman Period’, in ‘Women Like This’: New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World (ed. LevineAmy-Jill; SBL Early Judaism and Its Literature 1; Atlanta: Scholars, 1991) 221–42.

45 Scholars who come to similar conclusions include FeigelFriedrich Karl, Der Einfluβ des Weissagungsbeweises und anderer Motive auf die Leidensgeschichte: Ein Beitrag zur Evangelienkritik (Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 1910) 49–50 and LindarsBarnabas, New Testament Apologetic: The Doctrinal Significance of the Old Testament Quotations (London: SCM, 1961) 80–1.

46 Ps 38.14–15 MT; 37.14–15 LXX (ed. Rahlfs); 38.13–14 RSV.

47 See Gerstenberger, Psalms Part 1, 160–5.

48 See the discussion in CrossanJohn Dominic, The Cross That Spoke: The Origins of the Passion Narrative (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988) 174–87.

49 See the discussion by Feigel, Der Einfluβ des Weissagungsbeweises, 10.

50 The term servant [of God] was of course widely used, usually without any connection with Isa 52.13–53.12. If, however, the epithet ‘servant [of God]’ was common, or at least predictable, as a designation of the messiah in Jewish circles of the time, the association between the two terms would have facilitated the early Christian identification of the servant of Isaiah 52–3 with the messiah, since the suffering of this servant was no longer a deterrent, but rather an advantage for such an identification in their eyes. The designation of the messiah as the servant of God is attested by 4 Ezra 13.32; for discussion see StoneMichael Edward, Fourth Ezra (Hermeneia; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1990) 207, 392.

51 The motif of spitting recalls Isa 50.6–7; on the allusion to this passage in the Gospel of Peter, see DenkerJürgen, Die theologiegeschichtliche Stellung des Petrusevangeliums: Ein Beitrag zur Frühgeschichte des Doketismus (Europäische Hochschulschriften 23, Theologie 36; Bern: Herbert Lang; Frankfurt/M.: Peter Lang, 1975) 62. For hypotheses about the role of this passage in the development of the passion tradition as a whole, see KoesterHelmut, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International/ London: SCM, 1990) 224; Crossan, The Cross That Spoke, 142–3. As noted above (see note 38), the motif of mocking is present in Psalm 42 (41 LXX), though it is clearer in the MT than in the LXX.

52PhiloFlaccus36–9; see the discussion by BoxHerbert, Philonis Alexandrini: In Flaccum (London/New York/Toronto: Oxford University, 1939) xl–xliii; 91–2.

53 See MusurilloHerbert A., The Acts of the Pagan Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1954) 49–50,184.

54 See the discussion in CollinsYarbro, ‘The Genre of the Passion Narrative’, 15–16; see also Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels, 225; Crossan, The Cross That Spoke, 139–59.

55 According to Wayne Booth the relevant portion of the text of Mark displays a ‘double irony’ (idem, A Rhetoric of Irony [Chicago/London: University of Chicago, 1974] 92).

56 Donald Juel calls this process ‘messianic exegesis’ and argues that its logic is midrashic (idem, Messianic Exegesis: Christological Interpretation of the Old Testament in Early Christianity [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988] 90).

57 See OrigenContra Celsum2.34.

58 The reconstruction and translation are based on Mark 15.24.

59 Psalm 22.19 MT; 21.19 LXX (ed. Rahlfs); 22.18 RSV; the LXX reads διεμερσαντο τ μτιμον αντοῖς κα π τν ἱματισμν μον ἒβαλον κλρον

60 Ps 22.7–9 MT; 21.7–9 LXX (ed. Rahlfs); 22.6–8 RSV; the LXX reads, beginning with v. 8, πντες νε ξεμνκτρισν με, λλησαν ν χελεσιν ἕκνησαν κεφαλν ???λπισεν π κριον ῤνσσθω σωατω αὐτν ὅτι θλει αὑτν

61 Ps 22.17 MT; 21.17 LXX (ed. Rahlfs); 22.16 RSV; the translation of the MT cited above is taken with slight modification fromDahoodMitchell, Psalms 1: 1–50 (AB Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 137; see the comments on 140–1; the LXX reads ρνξαν χεῖρας νο καἰ πδας

62 Compare the discussion in Feigel, Der Einfluβ des Weissagungsbeweises, 65–6.

63 Even though Psalm 22 has little intrinsic connection with messianic ideas, it was interpreted messianically in the earliest recoverable Christian traditions. The presupposition of this interpretation was the execution of Jesus by crucifixion as a messianic pretender. The process by which the followers of Jesus arrived at this conclusion and attempted to persuade others of its validity cannot be determined exactly, but they probably began by interpreting a more messianic psalm as a prophecy of Jesus and then extended the argument to other psalms. Donald Juel has attempted to reconstruct the process(Messianic Exegesis, 90, 98 117); see alsoHays, ‘Christ Prays the Psalms’, 130–1.

64 Feigel makes this argument (Der Einflufβ des Weissagungsbeweises, 72); it may hold, however, for the motif as part of the Markan passion narrative.

65 E.g., Feigel (ibid., 73–6). His argument is based on the Markan form of the passion narrative and takes the cry together with the reaction of the centurion.

66 SeeCollinsYarbro, The Beginning of the Gospel, 117.

67 On the ambiguity of the relation between the tearing of the curtain and the death of Jesus, seeFowlerRobert M., Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1991) 202–3, 211.On the variety of interpretations, seeGeddertTimothy J., Watchwords: Mark 13 in Markan Eschatology (JSNTSup 26; Sheffield: JSOT, 1989) 140–3.

68 Ps 18.7 MT; 17.7 LXX (ed. Rahlfs); 18.6 RSV; note that φωνς occurs in Ps 17.7 LXX and φων or (φωνν in the pre-Markan passion narrative; cf. Mark 15.34 and 37; ναο also occurs in both; cf. Ps 17.7 LXX with Mark 15.38.

69 Ps 18.17–20 MT; 17.17–20 LXX (ed. Rahlfs); 18.16–19 RSV.

70Gerstenberger, Psalms Part 1, 96. This psalm is explicitly associated with David by its appearance, with minor variations, in 2 Samuel 22 as his victory song.

71 The book of Jonah has a similar motif; it presents the prophet as saying, ‘As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple’ (Jonah 2.7). The LXX reads ἓν τῷ κλεπειν π' ἒμο τν φνχν μον τοῠ κνρον μνσθην, κα ἒλθοι πρς α προσενχ νον εἰς ἂλιν σον (Jonah 2.8, ed. Rahlfs).

72 SeeJosephusJewish War 5.219.

73 On the tearing of the veil as theophanic, see the discussion inCollinsYarbro, The Beginning of the Gospel, 116–17; see alsoGeddert, Watchwords, 141.

74JosephusJewish War 5.212–14; David Ulansey argued that the outer veil was meant and that Mark intended to link this image with the tearing of the heavens at the baptism of Jesus (idem, ‘The Heavenly Veil Torn: Mark's Cosmic Inclusio’, JBL 110 [1991] 123–5).

75 Heb 6.19–20; 10.19–20; for discussion seeAttridgeHarold, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989) 183–5, 284–7.

76 Ps 22.2 MT; 21.2 LXX (ed. Rahlfs); 22.1 RSV.

77 See the discussion inCollinsYarbro, The Beginning of the Gospel, 115–16.

78 E.g., byHaseK., mentioned by Feigel, Der Einfluβ des Weissagungsbeweises, 67.

79 Compare Feigel, ibid., 67–8.

80 In ancient literature, the last words of a dying man were often prophetic; examples includePatroklos (Iliad16.843–54), Hektor (Iliad 22.355–60), and Pherecydes, who prophesied his own death (LaertiusDiogenesLives 1.117–18); this motif occurs also in the Hebrew Bible in connection with Jacob (Genesis 49), Joseph (Gen 50.24), Moses (Deuteronomy 32), Joshua (Joshua 23) and in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.

81 Compare the account of the death of Carneades; Diogenes reports that the moon is said to have been eclipsed at the time of his death; he interprets this phenomenon as a sign of the sympathy of the brightest luminary next to the sun, in spite of the fact that he states that the philosopher met his death with a certain lack of courage (LaertiusDiogenesLives 4.64). See also the accounts of the death of Julius Caesar (VirgilGeorgics 1.468;PlutarchLives: Caesar 69.4–5).

82 See the mention of burial in the story of Tellus, cited above in relation to note 9; Suetonius gives an account of the funeral, cremation and apotheosis of Julius Caesar (The Twelve Caesars: Julius Caesar 80–2, 84, 88). Diogenes Laertius occasionally mentions the funeral or burial of his subjects (e.g., of Chilon [1.72], Pherecydes [1.118], Anaxagoras [2.15], and Plato [40–1]).

83 See, for example, the discussion byBakhtinM. M., The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (ed. HolquistMichael; trans. EmersonCaryl and HolquistMichael; Austin: University of Texas, 1981) 51–68. An example of a parodistic travesty of the account of a noble death isLucian'sThe Passing of Peregrinus, especially 23 and 42.

84 See Luke 24.13–32, 44–9; John 14.25–6; for discussion of this point in relation to the Emmaus story, seeBetzHans Dieter, ‘The Origin and Nature of Christian Faith according to the Emmaus Legend (Luke 24:13–32)’, Interpretation23 (1969) 32–46; for a German version of this article, see idem, ‘Ursprung und Wesen christlichen Glaubens nach der Emmauslegende (Lk 24.13–32)’, in idem, Synoptische Studien: Gesammelte Aufsatze 2 (Tubingen: Mohr [Sie-beck], 1992) 35–49.

85 Like the passion narrative, the letter to the Hebrews combines the notions that the death of Jesus was exemplary and that it changed reality. See Heb 2.10–18; for discussion seeAttridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 78–87.

86Origen, Contra Celsum 3.1; compare Plato Phaedrus 260c where Socrates uses the proverb ‘shadow of an ass’ to make a point about good and bad speaking and writing. Celsus apparently used the proverb to signify a dispute of no importance.

* Main paper delivered at the 48th Meeting of the SNTS at Chicago, 1993.

The Messiah After the Crucifixion

by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab


translated from the Arabic by B. M. Bennani

After I was brought down, I heard the winds
Whip the palm trees with wild laments;
Footsteps receded into infinity. Wounds
And the cross I was nailed to all afternoon
Didn’t kill me. I listened. A cry of grief
Crossed the plain between me and the city
Like a hawser pulling a ship
Destined to sink. The cry
Was a thread of light between morning
And night in sad winter sky.
Despite all this, the city fell asleep.

When the orange and mulberry trees bloom
When my village Jaykour reaches the limits of fantasy
When grass grows green and sings with fragrance
And the sun suckles it with brilliance
When even darkness grows green
Warmth touches my heart and my blood flows into earth
My heart becomes sun, when sun throbs with light
My heart become earth, throbbing with wheat, blossom
             and sweet water
My heart is water, an ear of corn
Its death is resurrection. It lives in him who eats
The dough, round as a little breast, life’s breast.
I died by fire. When I burned, the darkness of my clay
             disappeared. Only God remained.
I was the beginning, and in the beginning was poverty
I died so bread would be eaten in my name
So I would be sown in season.
Many are the lives I’ll live. In every soil
I’ll become a future, a seed, a generation of men
A drop of blood, or more, in every man’s heart.

Then I returned. When Judas saw me he turned pale
I was his secret!
He was a shadow of mine, grown dark
The frozen image of an idea
From which life was plucked
He feared I might reveal death in his eyes
(his eyes were a rock
behind which he hid his death)
He feared my warmth. It was a threat to him
             so he betrayed it.
“Is this you? Or is it my shadow grown white
             emitting light?
Men die only once! That’s what our fathers said
That’s what they taught us. Or was it a lie?!”
That’s what he said when he saw me. His whole face spoke.

I hear footsteps, approaching and falling
The tomb rumbles with their fall
Have they come again? Who else could it be?
Their falling footsteps follow me
I lay rocks on my chest
Didn’t they crucify me yesterday? Yet here I am!
Who could know that I . . . ? Who?
And as for Judas and his friends, no one will believe them.
Their footsteps follow me and fall.

Here I am now, naked in my dank tomb
Yesterday I curled up like a thought, a bud
Beneath my shroud of snow. My blood bloomed from moisture
I was then a thin shadow between night and day.
When I burst my soul into treasures and peeled it like fruit
When I turned my pockets into swaddling clothes
             and my sleeves into a cover
When I kept the bones of little children
             warm within my flesh
And stripped my wounds to dress the wound of another
The wall between me and God disappeared.
The soldiers surprised even my wounds and my heartbeats
They surprised all that wasn’t dead
             even if it was a tomb
They took me by surprise the way a flock of starving birds
             pluck the fruit of a palm tree in a deserted village.

The rifles are pointed and have eyes
             with which they devour my road
Their fire dreams of my crucifixion
Their eyes are made of fire and iron
The eyes of my people are light in the skies
             they shine with memory and love.
Their rifles relieve me of my burden;
             my cross grows moist. How small
Such death is! My death. And yet how great!

After I was nailed to the cross, I cast my eyes
             toward the city
I could hardly recognize the plain, the wall, the cemetery
Something, as far as my eyes could see, sprung forth
Like a forest in bloom
Everywhere there was a cross and a mourning mother
Blessed be the Lord!
             Such are the pains of a city in labor.


Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s poem was translated from the Arabic by Ben M. Bennani, whose book of translations of three contemporary Arabic poet, Bread, Hasheesh, & Moon, will be published by Copper Canyon Press. (Spring 1975)

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