Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Creating Jesus 9: Why did Jesus die?

We must take caution to keep in mind that the development of christology was not a linear, philosophically reasoned, completely coherent process. The first Christians were not deliberately creating a divine Jesus. The process is extremely complex, it involved intense personal and interpersonal negotiations. It was responsive to certain questions that they were trying to resolve. It is organic and dynamic.

For me this means that when they were wondering about a question, and they had an idea about an answer, the idea didn't come to them as a single notion upon which they built another single notion. Rather they got an idea, and that idea brought with it an entire set of images and traditions and scriptures that were already associated with that idea.

Further, the solutions they were generating were fermented within a diverse Jewish thought world, not the "orthodox" Christian thought world which we are familiar with today, and so many continue to find necessary to apologize and defend by historicizing it. If we are going to do history and figure out what happened, it is necessary to set aside our preconceived notions about what the scriptures say as Christians have come to understand them. It is necessary to stop trying to make the evidence fit into a box it doesn't fit into.

What the early Christian literature preserves for us is the answers the first Christians provided to those initial questions. What scholars like myself try to do is look at the answers and determine what questions birthed them, and what process occurred in order for those particular answers to be their solutions, and to offer the best dates we can for when those solutions were brought into the theology.

Two very early pictures of Jesus emerge in response to his death. One is a prophet. The other is a martyr. And these were tied together. It is completely wrong to think that the martyr complex is a late myth that Mark or someone else created. The martyr is there in our earliest testimonies, piggybacking on the trope of the rejected prophet. In the Kernel Thomas we find reference to this already as a saying of Jesus: "A prophet is not received hospitably in his village. A doctor does not heal the people who know him" (31). It is in all three synoptics, and there applied to Jesus' rejection as a prophet in his own village (Mark 6:4; Matthew 13:57; Luke 4:23-24). It is known to John (4:44) with the same interpretation. Whatever Jesus may have meant by this saying we might never know. But it is clear that in all the independent attestations to it, it was remembered by the early Christians as proof of Jesus as a rejected prophet.

Also in the Kernel Thomas we find the parable about the tenant farmers who killed the owner's son, the heir of the vineyard (65). Again, whatever the parable meant in Jesus' teachings, we can dispute for a long time. What is indisputable is the fact that this parable, even in its telling in the Kernel Thomas had already been attached to a proof text from Psalm 118:22 the"rejected stone which has become the head of the corner" (66). This prooftext roams around a number of early Christian sources (Acts 4:11; Mark 12:10-11; Matthew 21:42; Luke 20:17; 1 Peter 2:5-6) and is used as a reference to the rejection of Jesus. In all three synoptics, it is connected to the end of the same parable of the tenant farmer. In Acts 4:11, it is explicitly associated with Jesus as the prophet-like-Moses who was rejected and killed.

The martyr was another idea that became associated with the prophet Jesus, probably because they understood Jesus as a prophet to be a completely righteous man who died a violent death through no fault of his own. The Jewish martyr was a Jew who maintained his or her piety and faith in YHWH even while enduring torture and death at the hands of the enemy. There developed a complex of ideas about the death of these people, one of them being that their deaths could not be for naught. That the righteous person was killed in such torturous ways, must mean something. So in the Maccabean literature we see arise the belief that the death of a righteous man had atoning value - it atoned for the sins of Israel. Furthermore, the righteous person had to be rewarded, and since this couldn't happen in this life, it must have to happen in the afterlife. So in the literature produced from the Maccabean period, we see the creation of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The martyrs and the enemies would be resurrected bodily in order to received their reward from YHWH and be glorified becoming stars or angels in heaven. The enemies would be punished.

Now our first Christians knew this idea. It was internalized for them. This paradigm was ready to go for them. And so this paradigm colors the literature from day one. It fit perfectly their interpretations of the visions of Jesus as resurrected being too.

So what we have is an immediate new complex hooked to Jesus' death and postmortem appearances. The new complex answered their questions: why did Jesus die? where is he now? He died because he was a rejected prophet like Moses (think the golden calf story). Also like Moses he did not deserve this treatment. He died, the heir of the vineyard, killed by the tenants, which was predicted in the scripture of the rejected cornerstone. He was a righteous man of God who suffered a torturous death. The title "Righteous One" was attached to him very early as it was also to James his brother who continued the tradition as the "Righteous One" once Jesus died (Acts 3:14; 7:52). He was martyred and his suffering served to atone for the sins of Israel (Acts 5:31). Now he has been exalted to heaven, resurrected by God to his right hand just as we would expect of a martyr. The proclamation that Jesus was "raised from the dead" appears to have entered liturgy very early (Romans 1:3-4; Acts 2:24; 2:32; 3:15; 4:2; 4:10; 4:33, etc.). The entire pattern is preserved in Acts 2:22-36.

14 comments:

Michael said...

April,

Thanks for this your latest installment. I like that you're drawing on the Maccabaean literature (I presume, 2 Macc 7 and 4 Macc 17 primarily).

This question I'm wondering is, granted that these traditions are in the minds of the earliest Christians (a proposition I heartily agree with), then is it that far of a step for Jesus himself to have anticipated a death like those suffered by the Maccabaean brothers?

The gospels' sources, and even the Kernel Thomas, attest to sayings that seem to be interpreted rightly as having "messianic" flavors. Perhaps it starts with the earliest followers, but isn't it just as possible, given the milieu that you have articulated, that it started with Jesus?

Lately, I've been reconsidering whether it is actually reasonable to ascertain Jesus' view of his purpose. But it doesn't seem to me that such a possibility should be ruled out.

Frank McCoy said...

The Synoptic account of Jesus entering Jerusalem while crowds intimated that he was the Davidic Messiah and then "cleansing" the temple and openly preaching in Jerusalen for days is inherently implausible. Pilate would have arrested him as soon as he found out about the proclamation of the crowds and Pilate would have not hesitated an iota to slaughter any people acting as a "human shield" around him (note Pilate's reaction to the crowds protesting his siezure of temple funds to finance an aqueduct).
The Johannine account of Jesus entering Jerusalem after the crowds proclaim him King of Israel and then, after a very brief period of time, going into hiding--with he being arrested only after his hiding place was learned by the authorities--is totally credible.
So, the most credible explanation for Jesus being crucified as King of the Jews is that he claimed to be the Davidic Royal Messiah.
What reason, then, did his followers have for thinking that he, in some meaningful sense, rose from dead?
The answer, I suggest, is found in Rom 1:3-4--which, as Dr. DeConick notes, is one of the earliest proclamations that Jesus was "raised from the dead". Romans 1:3b-4 reads, "Having come from the seed of David according to flesh; having been designated Son of God in power according to a Spirit of Holiness out of a rising from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord."
The beginning (Having come from the seed of David) relates to the fifth of thirteen citations of scripture found in 4Q174, i.e., "I will raise up you (i.e., David's) seed after you"--for each speaks of an individual who will be from the seed of David.
What follows (having been designated Son of God in power according to a Spirit of Holiness) relates to the seventh citation of scripture in 4Q174, i.e., "[I will be] his father and he shall be my son"--for each speaks of this individual as being, in some meaningful sense, a Son of God.
Next (out of a rising from the dead) relates to the eighth biblical passage in 4Q174, i.e., "I will raise up the tent of David that is fallen (immediately following aside: That is to say, the fallen *tent of David* is he who shall arise to save Israel)"--for each speaks of the raising of this individual.
What next follows ("Jesus Christ") relates to the twelfth biblical passage in 4Q174, i.e., "[Why] do the nations [rage] and the peoples mediate [vanity], the kings of the earth rise up, [and the] princes take counsel together against the Lord and against [His Messiah]?"--for each speaks of an an individual who is the Christ/Messiah.
The close ("our Lord") relates to the second biblical passage in 4Q174, i.e., In the sanctuary which Thy hands have established, O Lord, the Lord shall reign for ever and ever"--for each speaks of an individual who, while not *the* Lord, yet is Lord.
The suggested scenario: The person who first wrote what we find in Romans 1:3b-4 had a copy of 4Q174, did an initial scan of it, and then returned to its beginning and scanned down to biblical passage #2.
This person is not Paul. There is no evidence that Paul ever utilized a DSS document in the fashion that 4Q174 was apparently utilized. The emphasis on the Davidic descent of Jesus is not characteristic of Paul. It is un-Pauline in that no salvific significance is given to the death and rising of Jesus. As a result, what we find in Romans 1:3b-4 is a pre-Pauline credo that Jesus was a descendent of David who arose from the dead as Christ, Lord and Son of God.
As far as we know, 4Q174 was a strictly Palestinian text, so this pre-Pauline credo apparently arose in Palestine.
Further, that Paul felt it necessary to acknowledge the validity of this credo when writing to the assembly at Rome indicates that the members of this assembly were already holding to this belief. So, it appears, this credo not only arose in a pre-Pauline Palestinian milieu, but had spread outwards from Palestine to Rome itself by the mid-fifties.
That this credo became a widely propogated credo, even to Rome itself, suggests that it arose not from a splinter group of the followers of Jesus but, rather, from the primary and authoritative body of followers of Jesus at Jerusalem--the Jerusalem Assembly.
If so, then the primary scriptural basis for their belief that Jesus, in some meaningful sense, rose up from the dead was Amos 9:11--with they interpreting the tent of David to be Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, with they interpreting his fall as being his death and with they interpreting his rising to be his rising from death.
Frank McCoy BA History Univ of MN

pascal said...

Comparing and contrasting your observations with Shmuel Shepkaru's

'Jewish martyrs in the pagan and Christian worlds'

I would question the degree of certainty you are expressing on the two questions of martyrdom and resurrection...

pearl said...

For those of us who don’t have the book handy that 'pascal' refers to,
starting p. 6 :

Preview of Jewish martyrs in the pagan and Christian worlds by Shmuel Shepkaru

Liam Madden said...

Very good post and comments here. The idea of Jesus being interpreted through a martyrdom complex that evolved in the Maccabean period makes sense. I like Crossan's chapter in which he discusses the martyrs just before Jesus (Judas the Galilean up until the time of the fall of Jerusalem (Eleazar ben Simon). In each decade from the one preceding Jesus' crucifixion up until the fall of the temple, There was at least one (and in some cases, more than one) significant martyred political figure (not to mention John the Baptist). It's certain that a charismatic prophet such as Jesus, preaching a message of the Kingdom of God, was operating in a dangerous religio-political context.

One question that I have is: what do the post-crucifixion Jewish writings (Talmud and other Rabbinic responses) help to tell us about why Jesus died? Are they an apology in response to gospel accounts that blame Jewish leaders for some responsibility in Jesus death? Are they a confirmation (in the negative) of our consensus here that Jesus was perceived by his contemporaries chiefly as a prophet (though rejected, and they argued rightly so)? Are they an acknowledgement that a theological dispute with Jewish leaders (along with a trial by Jewish leaders) was a direct catalyst toward Jesus being arrested by Roman authorities, or are both the gospel accounts and the Rabbinic accounts merely an effort to assign and avoid blame for the death of Jesus projected retroactively on those events?

Did the "trials" of Jesus even really occur? There is a minimalist argument which is somewhat persuasive that argues that no such trials ever even took place, whether by Jewish leaders or by Pilate. This version just just sees Jesus being arrested and crucified, and that's it.

Fellow bloggers and Dr. DeConick, what's your view on this? Are the trials of Jesus in the gospel accounts merely literary inventions that help to externalize and frame the complex of religious and political factors that were involved in the death of Jesus? What do they (gospel accounts of the trial(s) and Rabbinic writings about Jesus reveal (or conceal)about why Jesus died?

Liam Madden said...

Very good post and comments here. The idea of Jesus being interpreted through a martyrdom complex that evolved in the Maccabean period makes sense. I like Crossan's chapter in which he discusses the martyrs just before Jesus (Judas the Galilean up until the time of the fall of Jerusalem (Eleazar ben Simon). In each decade from the one preceding Jesus' crucifixion up until the fall of the temple, There was at least one (and in some cases, more than one) significant martyred political figure (not to mention John the Baptist). It's certain that a charismatic prophet such as Jesus, preaching a message of the Kingdom of God, was operating in a dangerous religio-political context.

One question that I have is: what do the post-crucifixion Jewish writings (Talmud and other Rabbinic responses) help to tell us about why Jesus died? Are they an apology in response to gospel accounts that blame Jewish leaders for some responsibility in Jesus death? Are they a confirmation (in the negative) of our consensus here that Jesus was perceived by his contemporaries chiefly as a prophet (though rejected, and they argued rightly so)? Are they an acknowledgement that a theological dispute with Jewish leaders (along with a trial by Jewish leaders) was a direct catalyst toward Jesus being arrested by Roman authorities, or are both the gospel accounts and the Rabbinic accounts merely an effort to assign and avoid blame for the death of Jesus projected retroactively on those events?

Did the "trials" of Jesus even really occur? There is a minimalist argument which is somewhat persuasive that argues that no such trials ever even took place, whether by Jewish leaders or by Pilate. This version just just sees Jesus being arrested and crucified, and that's it.

Fellow bloggers and Dr. DeConick, what's your view on this? Are the trials of Jesus in the gospel accounts merely literary inventions that help to externalize and frame the complex of religious and political factors that were involved in the death of Jesus? What do they (gospel accounts of the trial(s) and Rabbinic writings about Jesus reveal (or conceal)about why Jesus died?

pearl said...

Liam,

As far as rabbinic literature, Peter Schäfer has written a book, Jesus in the Talmud.

Even though I have not read the book, I did find the Introduction online, which will give you an idea regarding his approach. He talks about “Jesus’ Execution” in Chapter Six (with a brief summary in the intro):
http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i8383.htmlImportantly, he states:
“Only when the fruitless search for fragments of information about the historical Jesus, hidden in the “ocean of the Talmud,” has been given up and when the right questions are asked, regardless of apologetic, polemic, or other considerations, can we discover the “historical truth” behind our sources: that they are literary answers to a literary text, the New Testament, given under very concrete historical circumstances.”

Can anyone give us further information about this book?

pascal said...

Liam

There is a massive literature on execution practises in first century Judea, much of it driven by the desire to blame, or alternatively to exculpate, the Jewish community in the crucifixion of Jesus.

If you don't want to spend several years reading through it then I suggest that you look at Beth Berkovit's

'Execution and Invention: Death Penalty discourse in Early Rabbinic and Christian Cultures'

which summarises the arguments before proceeding to her own hypotheses.

You can even get bits of it on google books...

pascal said...

Pearl

I too have not read the entire book, but those bits available suggest that it fits into the developing theories of literary critical interpretation; the entries in the Talmud do not make sense as claimed historical authentic facts, since they are clearly wildly inaccurate, but do make sense as a literary response to the New Testament, another literary composition which had been written probably some centuries before.

In claiming that Jesus was indeed tried and executed under Rabbinic law the writer was transporting 'what should have happened' into 'what did happen', and thus transformed the event into something suitable to be taught.

It is reminiscent of the Rabbinic creation of the lengthy tracts on capital punishment, and how to do it right, at a time whan the Rabbis had no power to order capital punishment at all.

People without power do not always wish to admit that fact...

Liam Madden said...

Pearl thanks for the link, and Pascal, thanks for your post. Pascal,I have to agree with you. I've been musing on the relevant Talmud passages for a few years, and I think your conclusions make the most sense. They can't be taken as factual in a strict historical sense, but do make sense as a sort of counternarrative to NT writing.I will look at Berkovit's book, and thank you for sharing that. In his THE TRIAL OF JESUS, Alan Watson makes an interesting argument that Jesus was anticipating his possible death as a prophet, but thought it would be death by stoning. He views the gospel passages, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, stoning the prophets and killing those whom I send to you!" as an authentic saying. Perhaps that is not too far out of the realm of possibility considering the fate of Stephen and later Jesus' brother James.

But again, what about these trials before Jewish authorities and Pilate? Did they even take place?

pearl said...

Liam, you are very welcome.

Pascal, thank you for your comments regarding literary response to the New Testament, in addition to your book recommendations.

The portions I read of Shmuel Shepkaru’s book were compelling. I’m curious how others viewed his arguments…

Liam Madden said...

Dear April,

May I re-pose to you a few questions of mine that got lost in the earlier comment streams. I'm really interested in your scholarly opinion on these topics. Altogether, there were three questions that I posed. The first was several weeks ago, and I asked: do you think the beloved disciple in John was Lazarus? I got my answer to that one because in a later posting, you said that you thought so. My other two questions, were: If you don't believe in a bodily resurrection, then what is your gut feeling about the Talpiot tomb? I mean, if one doesn't believe in a bodily resurrection, then it really does beg the question of what happened to the body. It's hard to imagine the disciples of Jesus being indifferent to the body, resurrected or not. What was the body's fate? And third, how about the trials of Jesus (both by Jewish and Roman authorities). Did these trials occur, or are they more like literary inventions? I'd really like to know what you think.

Gustav said...

Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.
You think of course I am referring to the New Testament, but I am not!
Why on earth, should everyone involved in the process of forming the New Testament Tradition be either entirely unscrupulous or insane? Any theory would be more acceptable, not to say more probable than that.

Theodore A. Jones said...

"The law was added so that the trespass might increase." Rom.5:20
"there is made of necessity also a change of the law." Heb. 7:12b
The true reason for the crucifixion of Jesus was that a man's death caused by bloodshed be a preexisting matter of fact for the base that it is not unreasonable for God to make a change to his law.
Therefore:
"It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13
But, which law?