Couldn't Jesus Save Himself?
Matt. 27:46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"--which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

This passage (and the Markan parallel) have been the subject of several objections with the assumptive theme that they indicate Jesus to have been helpless:

"How can Jesus Christ be our savior when he couldn't even save himself?"

One may contest here the finding that "Jesus couldn't save himself" in this situation - there is, after all, no indication that he tried to save himself, and failed - but even so, our objector is confusing categories here: Salvation from sin, as offered by Christ, is not the same thing as "salvation" from temporal suffering.

"These aren't the words of a man who is voluntarily dying for our sins, those are the words of a man who can think of a hundred places he would rather be. How could this be a savior?"

In the same light it is often asked why Jesus prayed for the cup of his suffering to be taken from him in Gethsemane.

Here again we have a confusion of categories. Obviously it is quite possible to do something unpleasant voluntarily: One weighs the consequences and the results, and makes a decision, and even then can cry out from the hardship. The attitudes are not mutually exclusive. But it is also untrue that these were the words of "a man who can think of a hundred places he would rather be." More on this in a moment.

Objection: Why is it that Jesus, the god-man, needed an angel to strengthen him (Luke 22:43)?

Precisely because he was the god-man, fully God and fully man. This is like asking why Jesus the god-man bled when he was crucified, ate when he was hungry, and wept over the death of Lazarus. The incarnation brought to the Wisdom of God human frailty and weakness -- including, perhaps, emotional weakness; yet the same dual nature kept this Wisdom from human sin.

However, this word "strengthened" seems to refer to a need for physical strengthening; it is used elsewhere only in Acts 9:19: "And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus." One may suggest that there was a need for physical refreshment after the stress of considering the road ahead.

Eating and bleeding are not cognitive acts, so the analogy fails.

That these are "cognitive acts" is true, but of absolutely no relevance to failing the analogy.

Now the key question, though, is whether the cry from the cross is indeed a cry of weakness. A member of our local inerrancy list noted that this was not the case:

One of the long-standing customs of Hebrew thought and language is to refer to a particular prayer, Psalm, blessing, etc. by the first word(s) of the prayer, Psalm, blessing, etc. This can be readily confirmed by opening any Jewish/Hebrew prayer book where one will find hundreds of prayers, Psalms, and blessings all titled according to the first words or phrase that appear in that prayer, Psalm, or blessing (e.g.. the "Shema" - Deut 6:4).
English speaking people practice a very similar nomenclature. We abbreviate clichés, proverbs, fables, and other common sayings by mentioning only a familiar portion. For example, rather than recounting the entire story of the tortoise and the hare, we simply state the moral, "slow but steady wins the race." In so doing, those to whom we are addressing will make the intended connection between our statement and Aesop's fable.
In like manner, when Jesus cried "My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me?", He was drawing the attention of the Jews who were present at the crucifixion to Psalm 22. In effect, Jesus was saying that He is the fulfillment of Psalm 22, a Psalm which the Jews had always seen as a Messianic Psalm. A quick glance at Psalm 22 will reveal that the fist words are "My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me?"
Further evidence to this claim is given by Jesus Himself, after the resurrection. Appearing before His disciples, Jesus says, "These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." .
As the Messiah, Jesus was not only concerned with fulfilling the role of the Messiah but also with making His identity known to His followers. In this regard, Jesus drew the attention of the Jews to Psalm 22 while He was hanging on the cross. The observant Jew immediately knew what Jesus was referring to. The observant Jew also knew that Psalm 22 was a Messianic Psalm.
To suggest that Jesus uttered this phrase from the cross because He was unable to save Himself is ridiculous and demonstrates an ignorant or dishonest exegesis. Such ignorance or dishonesty is epitomized by the critic who paraphrases Jesus' words as "Let me out of here. Why have you forsaken me?" There is absolutely no Biblical warrant for such amateurish hermeneutic.

In exploring this argument further, I have noted that Psalm 22, although it begins with despair, concludes on a note of triumph which reflects the vindication the Psalmist anticipates:

But be not thou far from me, O LORD: O my strength, haste thee to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog. Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns. I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee. Ye that fear the LORD, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel. For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard. My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him. The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the LORD that seek him: your heart shall live for ever. All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. For the kingdom is the LORD'S: and he is the governor among the nations. All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul. A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation. They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.

It is our primary argument, then, that to even regard Jesus' quote as one of desperation is to completely misunderstand what the cry was all about. It is not the cry of a victim, but -- along with the earthquake, the darkness, the rending of the Temple veil -- an eschatological sign, not merely a prayer. Consider:

There are some strong indications, then, that this "loud cry" is an allusion to the whole of Ps. 22, including its triumphant ending. The only real objections to this thesis are:

  1. According to Brown, in Death of the Messiah, 1050, "it would mean that Mark (and presumably Matthew) expected his readers to recognize that a psalm was being cited, to know the whole psalm, and to detect from a reference to the agonized opening verse the triumphant fate of the one who prays." This is not at all difficult to accept: The Gospels were written for Christians who would already have known of Christ's triumphant fate, and Ps. 22 would have been taught as a key Messianic text.
  2. It has been objected that this amounts to Jesus being concerned with reciting poetry while suffering on the cross -- an objection which is not only a caricature (it is more than a simple matter of reciting poetry), but which also fails to notice other places where Jesus expresses concern for prophetic fulfillment on the cross (John 19:28).
  3. Finally a critic has said, "Apparently, the crucified Jesus is somehow unable to use in its literal sense any phrase that begins a Psalm (or perhaps any phrase from the entire Old Testament). It's more plausible that the crucified Jesus was a mortal ex-carpenter whose shattered delusion of divine favor led him to despair." This is the entirety of the critique. This is ignoring the data and begging exceptions for it, not dealing with it.

One other argument I have found of late (5/09) comes from David Catchopole's book Resurrection People (10). Catchpole argues that in Mark, the verses of Ps. 22 are recited as fulfilled in reverse order (e.g., Ps. 22:18, dividing of clothing, first; 22:7-8, shaking of heads, second; 22:6, insults, third, and 22:1, the forlorn cry, last). From this he concludes that this also means that there is no fulfillment after the cry of the last verse in the Psalm.

Catchpole's idea is ingenious but ultimately involves a non sequitur: There is no logical connection between order of reportage and significance of events.

-JPH