"This book will change you. It is an invitation to the Messiah's wedding feast and a foretaste of heaven. It will change the way you experience the sacraments, personal prayer, Scripture study, and marriage. Most of all, it will deepen your love for Christ." - Scott Hahn
What do you see when you look at a crucifix? Different people see different things. Do you see the brutal execution of an ancient Jewish man at the hands of the Roman authorities? Or the unjust punishment of a great teacher, who was tragically misunderstood by the leaders of his day? Do you see the martyrdom of the Jewish Messiah, who was killed for claiming to be "the king of the Jews"? Or the sacrifice of the divine Son of God, who willingly took upon himself the sins of the world?
In the first century A.D., the apostle Paul — a former disciple of the Jewish rabbi Gamaliel — saw all of these things. But he also saw something more in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul saw the love of a bridegroom for his bride. In one of the most famous (and controversial) passages he ever penned, the apostle describes the passion and death of Jesus in terms of the love of a husband for his wife.Speaking to husbands and wives in the church at Ephesus, Paul writes these words:
Now, I realize that many readers may be thinking: "Wives do what?!" Why does Paul tell wives to "submit" to their husbands? And why do husbands apparently get off so easy, with the simple command to "love" their wives? Is Paul some kind of apostolic chauvinist? What in the world does he mean when he says such things?
I promise to get to that later on in the book. Before we can, however, we first need to focus our attention on what lies behind these controversial words: Paul's description of Christ as a bridegroom, the Church as his bride, and the crucifixion of Jesus as the kind of ancient Jewish wedding day on which he "loved" her and "gave himself " for her. Indeed, as we will see later on, when Paul refers to the Church being "washed" and "presented" to Christ, he is describing the ancient Jewish bridal bath and wedding ceremony. From Paul's point of view, the torture and crucifixion of Jesus on Calvary was nothing less than an expression of spousal love.
What are we to make of this mysterious analogy? To be sure, most Christians are familiar with the idea that Christ is "the Bridegroom" and the Church is "the Bride." But what does this really mean? And what would ever possess Paul to think of such a comparison? If you had been there at the foot of the bloody cross, with Jesus hanging there dying, is that how you would have described what was happening? How could a first-century Jew like Paul, who knew how horribly brutal Roman crucifixions were, have ever compared the execution of Jesus to the marriage between a bridegroom and his bride? Is this just an elegant metaphor? If so, why then does Paul refer to it as a "great mystery" (Greek mysterion mega) (Ephesians 5:32)?
As I hope to show in this book, it is precisely because Paul was Jewish that he saw the passion of Christ in this way. It is precisely because Paul knew Jewish Scripture and tradition that he was able to see the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth as more than just a Roman execution, an unjust martyrdom, or even the sacrifice of the Son of God. Because of his Jewish background, Paul saw the passion and death of Christ as the fulfillment of the God of Israel's eternal plan to wed himself to humankind in an everlasting marital covenant. As we will see in this book, from an ancient Jewish perspective, in its deepest mystery, all of salvation history is in fact a divine love story between Creator and creature, between God and Israel, a story that comes to its climax on the bloody wood of a Roman cross.
In order for us to see all of this, however, we will have to go "back in time" to the first century A.D. and take off our modern "eyeglasses" and try to see both the love of God and the passion of Jesus the way the apostle Paul and other ancient Christians saw them — through ancient Jewish eyes. In other words, we will have to go back and reread the accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in light of ancient Jewish Scripture and tradition.
When we do this, we will discover that Paul is not the only person who talked this way. In the early stages of Jesus' ministry, John the Baptist — another first-century Jew — refers to Jesus as "the Bridegroom" (John 3:29), even though Jesus has no wife. Later on, in one of his most mysterious parables, Jesus refers to himself as "the bridegroom," and calls his disciples "the sons of the bride-chamber" (Mark 2:1819). Moreover, the very first miracle Jesus performs takes place at a Jewish wedding, when he acts like a bridegroom by miraculously providing wine for the wedding party (John 2:111). Most striking of all, the last days of Jesus' life — the Last Supper, the passion, and his crucifixion and death — when examined through the lens of ancient Jewish Scripture and tradition, look mysteriously similar to certain aspects of an ancient Jewish wedding. According to the book of Revelation (written by yet another Jewish Christian), the world itself ends with a wedding: the eternal "marriage supper of the Lamb" and the unveiling of the new Jerusalem as the Bride of Christ (Revelation 19, 21).
In other words, when seen through ancient Jewish eyes, Jesus of Nazareth was more than just a teacher, or a prophet, or even the Messiah; he was the bridegroom God of Israel come in the flesh. As the Bridegroom Messiah, his mission was not just to teach the truth, or proclaim the kingdom, but to forgive the sinful bride of God and unite himself to her in an everlasting covenant of love. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
So, if you've ever found yourself puzzled by the words of the apostle Paul, or if you've ever wondered exactly what it means to say that Christ is "the Bridegroom" and the Church is his "bride," or if you've just wanted to understand better who Jesus was and why he was crucified, then I invite you to come along on this journey of discovery.
As we will see, by looking at the love of God and the passion of Christ through the lens of the Bridegroom Messiah, we can transform not only the way we see Jesus and his death, but also how we understand baptism, the Lord's Supper, marriage, virginity, and even the end of the world. While many a man throughout history has jokingly described his wedding day as his funeral, Jesus of Nazareth is the only man who ever solemnly described his funeral as his wedding day. This book explains why, and what it means for who he was, why he lived, and why he died on the cross.
Before we can begin to see Jesus differently, however, we first have to go back to the beginning of the love story, and try to see God differently, through ancient Jewish eyes.
In the twenty-ﬁrst century, it has become quite popular in the secular Western world for people to declare, "I don't believe in God!" However, as one contemporary biblical scholar likes to point out, whenever you hear the words "I don't believe in God," if you really want to know what people mean, it is important to ask the question: "What God don't you believe in?"
The reason is that in both ancient and modern times people can use the word "God" to mean very different things. Or, you might also say, there are a host of different "gods" for people to believe or not believe in. For some, God is above all the Creator, who exists, and who made the world, but who may (or may not) be very involved in the day-to-day affairs of the billions of individuals who pass through this world. For others, God is a kind of impersonal Higher Power, who binds all things together, but who has no face. Think here of the popular image of "the Force" from George Lucas's Star Wars ﬁlms. In this imaginary world, the Force is a kind of deity — holding all of existence together and giving power and life to all things. But it is certainly not a person; you can "use" the Force, but you certainly cannot love the Force. Finally, still others may think of God as the Invisible Problem-Solver. This is the popular caricature of theism: God is a powerful person "somewhere out there," who can be called upon in times of disaster, war, strife, and trouble, to intervene in earthly affairs — but only, mind you, when we humans are in over our heads and start to lose control. After things settle down again, it's back to business as usual.
These are just a few examples of the many ways of seeing "God" in the modern world. For our purposes here, what matters most is that none of these ways of seeing God — as a distant watchmaker, as an impersonal force that binds everything together, or as a kind of invisible superhuman hero — is the way a ﬁrst-century Jew like Jesus of Nazareth would have seen God. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the one true God — "the LORD" or "He Who Is" (Hebrew YHWH) (Exodus 3:15) — is not just the Creator. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the God of Israel is also a Bridegroom, a divine person whose ultimate desire is to be united to his creatures in an everlasting relationship that is so intimate, so permanent, so sacriﬁcial, and so life-giving that it can only be described as a marriage between Creator and creatures, between God and human beings, between YHWH and Israel.
Before we can understand what it would have meant for Jesus and the ﬁrst Jewish Christians to refer to him as "the Bridegroom," we need to understand why it is that ancient Jews referred to YHWH, the God of Israel, as the divine "Bridegroom." In this chapter we will take a few moments to develop a brief proﬁle of the Bridegroom God of Israel. As we will see, from an ancient Jewish perspective, the God who created the universe is a Bridegroom, and all of human history is a kind of divine love story.
First, in order to understand what it would have meant to an ancient Jew to refer to the God of Israel as the divine Bridegroom, it is necessary to grasp how they saw the history of Israel, and, indeed, all of human history. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the history of salvation was centered on the events that took place at Mount Sinai during the exodus from Egypt at the time of Moses. And from an ancient Jewish perspective, the relationship between God and Israel that was established at Mount Sinai was not just a sacred bond revolving around the laws of the Ten Commandments. From the perspective of the biblical prophets, what happened at Mount Sinai was nothing less than a divine wedding.
Most readers of the Bible are basically familiar with the story of Moses, the exodus from Egypt, and the journey to Mount Sinai. As the book of Exodus tells us, sometime in the late second millennium B.C., the prophet Moses rises up, and, through a series of wonders and plagues, frees the twelve tribes of Israel from slavery in Egypt under an oppressive Pharaoh (see Exodus 13). After the celebration of Passover and the overthrow of Pharaoh and his chariots by God during the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14 15), Moses and the twelve tribes eventually travel through the desert of the Arabian Peninsula and arrive at Mount Sinai, where the God of all creation declares that he will appear to them on the mountain. To prepare themselves to meet God in person, the Israelites "wash" in water and abstain from sexual relations (Exodus 19). Then, in a momentous and unforgettable theophany, the Lord of Creation appears atop the mountain in ﬁre and smoke and gives the people of Israel the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). It is at this point that he enters into a special relationship with them known as a "covenant" (Hebrew berith). In the words of Exodus:
And [Moses] rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacriﬁced peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient." And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, "Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words." Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. . . . And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and they ate and they drank. (Exodus 24:4 11)From a biblical perspective, a "covenant" was a sacred family bond between persons, establishing between them a permanent and sacred relationship. In the Exodus account of the covenant at Mount Sinai, quoted above, we see exactly this kind of relationship being inaugurated. By accepting the terms of the relationship (the Ten Commandments), and by offering worship to God in the form of blood sacriﬁce, the twelve tribes of Israel are established in a mysterious and sacred relationship with God. This relationship is established by Moses's act of throwing the blood of the sacriﬁces on the altar (symbolizing God) and on the elders (representing the people). This action symbolizes that the Creator of the world and the twelve tribes of Israel are now in a "ﬂesh and blood" relationship — that is, they are family. Should there be any doubt about this, notice that once the blood of the covenant sacriﬁce has been offered, the covenant between God and Israel climaxes in a heavenly banquet, in which Moses and the leaders of Israel manifest this familial relationship with God by doing what families do: eating and drinking together, in his very presence.
The book of Exodus gives us this history of the events that it recounts as taking place in the desert some ﬁfteen hundred years before the birth of Christ. But this is not the complete story. To understand how an ancient Jew like Jesus saw the meaning of the covenant at Mount Sinai, not only do we need to read the book of Exodus; we also have to turn to the writings of the prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea. When you open the pages of the prophets, you will ﬁnd something remarkable: they boldly proclaim that behind the History of the covenant at Mount Sinai lies a deeper mystery. From the prophets' point of view, what happened at Sinai was not just the giving of a set of laws, but the spiritual wedding of God and Israel. From this perspective, the God of Israel is not only the Lord of creation; he is the Bridegroom. Likewise, the twelve tribes of Jacob are not just a people; together they constitute the bride of God. Consider the following passages:
[Thus says the LORD:] "Therefore behold, I will allure her [Israel], and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. . . . And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt." (Hosea 2:14, 15)Although much could be said about these remarkable prophecies, for our purposes, three points should sufﬁce. First, notice that the prophets are all looking back to the time of the exodus: when Israel came out of Egypt, went into the wilderness, and made a "covenant" with God at Mount Sinai. In other words, the prophets are retelling the story of Mount Sinai as a divine love story revolving around the covenant. Second, all three prophets depict Israel at the time of the exodus as a young bride who is being wooed by her divine Bridegroom to enter into a marriage with him. In order to win her hand, God "speaks tenderly to her" — or, literally, "speaks to her heart" — in order to draw her into a relationship of "devotion" or "steadfast love" (Hebrew hesed). Third and ﬁnally, this marital relationship is sealed by means of the covenant: in the words of Ezekiel, it is through the "covenant" (Hebrew berith) that the people become the bride of God.
In other words, from the vantage point of the prophets of Israel, behind all of the visible events surrounding the exodus — the ﬁre, the mountain, the sacriﬁces, the smoke — lies the invisible mystery of God's wedding day. Building on the words of the prophets, later Jewish tradition would teach, in the words of Rabbi Jose, that "'The Lord came from Sinai,' to receive Israel as a bridegroom comes forth to meet the bride" (Mekilta on Exodus 19:17).
From an ancient Jewish perspective, if we look at the God of Israel as the divine Bridegroom, then this changes not only the way we see the Creator, but also the way we see transgressions against God, which we call "sin." For if the God of Israel is not just a Creator, or a Lawgiver, but the Bridegroom, then sin is not just the breaking of a rule or a law, but the betrayal of a relationship.
It is hard to overestimate the signiﬁcance of this insight for understanding the history of salvation. For, as anyone familiar with the Bible knows, it is not very long at all after the wedding ceremony that the newlywed bride, the people of Israel, is caught in the act of spiritual adultery.
According to Jewish Scripture, less than forty days after the making of the covenant at Mount Sinai, without Moses knowing what was going on, the high priest Aaron and the leaders of the twelve tribes abandon their covenant with the God of Israel and begin to offer sacriﬁce to the golden calf:
The temptation to commit idolatry might at ﬁrst seem bizarre to modern-day readers. (I for one have never felt any deep desire to fall down before a cow and adore!) Nevertheless, as biblical scholars point out, the last line of this passage discreetly alludes to the kind of physical excesses and immorality that were part and parcel of ancient pagan worship in the Near East. Such aspects of the pagan cults made them a real temptation for the people of Israel, especially when compared to the spiritual worship and moral strictures required by the God of Israel. The worship of the golden calf at Mount Sinai is but the ﬁrst in a long history of communal acts of idolatry. According to Jewish Scripture, over and over again, generation after generation, the descendants of Israel fall prey to the worship of the false gods of their pagan neighbors — worship that involves acts of not only religious inﬁdelity but also physical immorality, cultic prostitution, and even human sacriﬁce (for example, Numbers 25; Judges 2:1115; 1 Kings 11; 2 Kings 15 17, 24 25). The sin of idolatry is ultimately about offering to some creature or created thing the love that is due to God alone, not only as Creator, but as the divine Bridegroom.
Brant Pitre. "Introduction." in Jesus the Bridegroom (New York: NY, Image Press, 2014): 1-14
Excerpted from Jesus the Bridegroom by Brant Pitre. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 2014 Brant Pitre
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.