Tag Archives: Crucifixion of Jesus

Who Depoliticized Early Christianity?

Who killed Jesus and why?

With the Roman occupation of Palestine and its tense atmosphere of messianic hopefuls within the first century CE, the horrors of crucifixion were a real and ever present reality for messianic claimants like Jesus. A reality of which Paul and the first Christians would have been all too aware. Simply put, [Richard] Carrier inadvertently depoliticizes early Christianity. (Daniel N. Gullotta 2016, “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts“, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, pp. 332-333, emphasis mine)

Do you know who else depoliticized early Christianity? Early Christians. Paul. The evangelists. The early Church Fathers. In short, everyone.

New Testament authors are clear about why Jesus died and who is responsible. According to “our oldest sources” (to invoke a scholarly term), Jesus had done nothing worthy of punishment. As Hyam Maccoby put it:

According to the Gospels, Jesus was the victim of a frame-up. His aims were purely religious, and in pursuing them, he had fallen foul of the Jewish religious establishment, who, in order to get rid of him, concocted a political charge, and managed to hoodwink the Roman governor, Pilate, into believing it. When Pilate still showed reluctance to execute Jesus, they pressed the political charge until he was left with no option: ‘The Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar; any man who claims to be king is defying Caesar.”’ (John 19.7). (Maccoby 1984, “Who Killed Jesus?” London Review of Books, emphasis mine)

Englewood Dam

A narrow, precarious path

The story of Jesus’ death, followed by the successful spread of Christianity as related in the gospels and Acts, reminds me of the road across Englewood Dam. The dam, located northwest of Dayton, Ohio, protects the area from flooding by the Stillwater River. A number of dams in the area, all built after the Great Dayton Flood, have a similar design. The levees on either side are enormous, allowing the reservoirs to retain billions of gallons of water.

The first time I drove across the levee, I was struck by how easy it seemed (if not for the guardrails) to veer slightly to the left or the right, tumbling 100 feet down the embankment into the trees. The story of the Passion follows a similarly narrow, but more circuitous path. If Jesus was a rebel, a brigand, then he really was an enemy of Rome. And that just won’t do, will it? However, if Jesus did nothing but teach and heal, then why would Pilate have put him to death? Somehow, Jesus must have provoked someone to cause this chain of events, but who?

According to the New Testament, it was “the Jews.” The Jewish leaders were jealous of his fame, or else they worried the people would believe in him and cause the Romans to come and destroy them. (See John 11:45-53.) And here we see one of the great uses of the hypothesized historical Jesus. A reconstructed Jesus allows NT scholars in the post-Holocaust world to reinterpret verses like these: read more »

Only by his death does Jesus become historical

The single most solid fact about Jesus’ life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for Roman insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion. (p.8 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews by Paula Fredriksen)

The same was said by one of the most renowned of critical scholars of yesteryear.

Alfred Loisy is quoted as holding similar thoughts. His critical analysis of the Gospels leaves him thinking that there is only one certain historical fact to be found in them:

There is no actual consistency in the Gospel story, save the crucifixion of Jesus, condemned by Pontius Pilate as a Messianic agitator.

This is cited from La Passion de Marduk, “Rev. d’Hist et de Litt. Relig.,” 1922, pp. 297-8 in The Enigma of Jesus by Paul Louis Couchoud (translated by Winifred Whale), 1924, p. 70.

Couchoud elaborates on Loisy’s view:

To his affirmation on this point Loisy has always adhered. In his autobiography, which is a master-piece of the literature of the mind, the grave and dramatic story of a conscience, he says, under the date 1894: —

Not a single incident in the whole symbolic narrative did I accept literally save that Jesus had been crucified under Pontius Pilate. [Choses Passées, 165]

In 1907 he wrote:–

If Jesus was not condemned to death as King of the Jews, that is as Messiah, by his own confession, one might just as well maintain that he never existed. [Les Evangiles Synoptiques, I, p. 212]

In 1910 he repeated:–

If this fact could be called in question, there would be no reason to maintain the existence of Jesus. [Jésus et la Tradition Evangélique]

Thus, only by his death sentence does Jesus become historical. The thread is very thin. Does this imply that Loisy accepts the story of the Passion as history? Far from it. Almost all the incidents of the cycle of the Passion —

far from constituting a series of recollections, . . . have been deduced from biblical texts. . . . One might almost say that the Passion was built up on Psalm xxii. . . . Facts are related because of their mystical value, not according to their historical development. . . . The only consistent part of the whole trial is the offence of the Messianic aspiration. [La Légende de Jésus, “Rev. d’Hist. et de Litt. Relig.,” 1922, p. 434, 453, 435, 448]

Loisy regards the greater part of the Passion story as mythological:–

The Gospels do not relate the death of Jesus. They relate the myth of salvation realized by his death, perpetuated in a way by the Christian Eucharist, sympathetically commemorated and renewed in the Easter Festival. The Christian myth is withoutdoubt related to the other salvation myths. It is by no mere chance that the resurrection of Christ on the third day after his death coincides with the ritual of the Feast of Adonis. The Barabbas incident, the burial by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of the empty grave, are apologetic fictions. The incident of the two thieves crucified with Jesus may well be of the same order. And there is no reason why their invention should not have been facilitated or suggested in one way or another by mythologies of surrounding countries. [La Passion de Marduk, “Rev. d’Hist et de Litt. Relig.,” 1922, pp. 297]

But the bare fact of the crucifixion of Jesus sentenced by Pontius Pilate, that remains invulnerable. Despite Psalm xxii, which is put into the very mouth of Jesus on the Cross, and which is quite enough to set the mystical imagination working on the crucifixion; despite Paul’s express declaration that Jesus was crucified by Celestial Powers (and Pilate was certainly not one of them), Loisy maintains the crucifixion of Jesus sentenced by Pilate to be incontestable. Well assured of this historical fact, he fearlessly wields the trenchant blade of his criticism to cut away nearly all the rest.

I imagine a wood-cutter astride on a big branch and hacking the tree trunk. As each splinter flies away, those below cry out: “Take care! It will break and you will fall! He answers with a knowing smile: “Don’t be afraid! However little I have, I shall be able to hold on to it.”

Astride on Pilate’s judgment given by reason of Messianic agitation, all that Loisy saves of the Gospels is such passages as may fit in with the action and the doctrine of a Messianic agitator. According to this criterion, he decides whether a passage has the air of antiquity and reality. The rest is rejected. Thus he arrives at a Jesus who is very thin and very meagre, but who is consistent, comprehensible, coherent, and historically possible.

If one reduces the Jesus of the critics to terms of actual history, one obtains something like the following:–

Couchoud here reminds us of what we learn of the period 6 to 66 ce from the historian Josephus. . . .

In the year 6 of our era, Judas the Galilean attempted to oppose the census instituted by the legate P. Sulpicius Quirinius, and founded the groups of Zelotes, who recognized no other master than God.

Somewhere between 44 and 46, the Prophet Theudas, at the head of a band of followers, marched towards the Jordan and Jerusalem, proclaiming that the waters of the Jordan would divide at the sound of his voice. The Procurator, Cuspius Fadus, had the band dispersed by his cavalry. The Prophet’s head was brought to Jerusalem.

Somewhere between 52 and 58, an Egyptian Jew led a mob as far as the Mount of Olives, promising that the walls of Jerusalem would fall at his command. The Procurator Felix sallied forth at the head of the garrison. Four hundred fanatics were killed, two hundred taken prisoner: the Egyptian disappeared.

To these three must be added a fourth, omitted by Josephus, reconstituted by Loisy. Somewhere between 26 and 36, a Galilean peasant, a village artisan named Jesus,

“began to proclaim the coming of God. After preaching for a while in Galilee, where he enlisted only a few followers, he came to Jerusalem for Easter, and there all he succeeded in accomplishing was to get condemned to death on the cross, like any common agitator, by the Procurator, Pontius Pilate.” [A. Loisy, Les Premières Années du Christianisme, “Rev. d’Hist et de Litt. Relig.,” 1920, p. 162]

That is all that is known about him. Everything else was imagined by the marvellous faith of his disciples. (The Enigma of Jesus, pp. 71-74)

John Crossan has “infamously/famously” made the same point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=EUxTVGiHLco

Indeed, the adherence of scholars to the crucifixion of Jesus as the one single absolutely certain bed-rock fact is instructive. Historical Jesus scholars claim to possess the alchemical-like powers to produce facts out of criteria where only fictional or theological tales existed before. One of these criteria holds that if a narrative details serves a theological interest or appears to be there to fulfil a Scripture, then it is reasonable to hold its historical authenticity as suspect.

But was not the very concept of the crucifxion of Jesus entirely a theological construct from the very first time it appears in the record in Paul’s writings?

And if the single most solid “fact” about Jesus is entirely a theological event where is that remaining stick that would save the wood-cutter from falling? The image can be more ironic if one imagines the tree resembling a cross.

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Historical Jesus: two vacuous responses from Dunn on Price

Just two points from James D. G. Dunn’s response to Robert M. Price’s chapter, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point”, in The Historical Jesus: Five Views are addressed here. Maybe will address more over time in other posts. Dunn’s responses are lazy and insulting dismissals of Price’s arguments, not rebuttals based on logic or evidence, as remarked upon in recent comments. It is instructive to compare Price’s own response to Dunn’s chapter in the same book. No insult. No cavalier dismissals. But a pointed rebuttal from the evidence, scholarship and all tied together with rigid and nonfallacious logic. Price’s responses to Dunn make for much more interesting reading. I should highlight them more with posts in the future.

Meanwhile, the two points I address here are Dunn’s insult and avoidance of what Price’s stated about

  1. the varying dates and scenarios for Jesus’ crucifixion in the early Christian evidence, and
  2. the question of Paul’s meeting James the brother of the Lord read more »

Overimaginative images of Jesus on a cross?

Evangelical Textual Criticism discusses the successfully defended thesis of Gunnar Samuelsson that the ancient textual evidence fails to support our image of Jesus dying on a cross. From the ETC site:

Last Friday Gunnar Samuelsson successfylly defended his thesis “Crucifixion in Antiquity: An Inquiry into the Background of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion” at Gothenburg University (supervisor Samuel Byrskog).

Abstract

This study investigates the philological aspects of how ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew/Aramaic texts, including the New Testament, depict the practice of punishment by crucifixion. A survey of the ancient text material shows that there has been a too narrow view of the “crucifixion” terminology. The various terms are not simply used in the sense of “crucify” and “cross,” if by “crucifixion” one means the punishment that Jesus was subjected to according to the main Christian traditions. The terminology is used much more diversely. Almost none of it can be elucidated beyond verbs referring vaguely to some form(s) of suspension, and nouns referring to tools used in such suspension. As a result, most of the crucifixion accounts that scholars cite in the ancient literature have to be rejected, leaving only a few. The New Testament is not spared from this terminological ambiguity. The accounts of the death of Jesus are strikingly sparse. Their chief contribution is usage of the unclear terminology in question. Over-interpretation, and probably even pure imagination, have afflicted nearly every wordbook and dictionary that deals with the terms related to crucifixion as well as scholarly depictions of what happened on Calvary. The immense knowledge of the punishment of crucifixion in general, and the execution of Jesus in particular, cannot be supported by the studied texts.

The same blog site offers contact details for purchasing the dissertation, and additional notes from its concluding chapter. There is also a discussion of the archaeological evidence.


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“Christ crucified” — Was Paul’s message really anti-imperialist as Borg and Crossan assert?

In a recent post I mentioned a new publication, The First Paul, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. I said it contained some interesting bits, but also some bits that one might suspect are arguably on the dubious side of method and logic. I discussed a positive for my first post, now for a negative.

In the first-century setting of Paul and his hearers, “Christ crucified” had an anti-imperial meaning. Paul’s shorthand summary was not “Jesus died,” not “Jesus was killed,” but “Christ crucified. This meant that Jesus had been crucified by imperial authority . . . . In Paul’s world, a cross was always a Roman cross.

Rome reserved crucifixion for two categories of people: those who challenged imperial rule . . . and chronically defiant slaves . . . The two groups who were crucified had something in common: both rejected Roman imperial domination. Crucifixion . . . carried the message, “Don’t you dare defy imperial authority, or this will happen to you.

To proclaim “Christ crucified” was to signal at once that Jesus was an anti-imperial figure, and that Paul’s gospel was an anti-imperial gospel. The empire killed Jesus. The cross was the imperial “no” to Jesus. But God raised him. The resurrection was God’s “yes” to Jesus, God’s vindication of Jesus — and thus also God’s “no” to the powers that had killed him. (p. 131-2)

I admit I have much more to read on this topic, including a few books in my personal library like the twelve year old Paul and Empire by Richard Horsley which I am embarrassed to confess I still have only half read. So the argument of this post is restricted solely to the discussion as found in Borg and Crossan’s new popular book.

I have been recently blogging about the ostensibly pre-gospel passages about the crucifixion of Jesus (latest post here), arguing that this foundational event is entitled to be questioned as to its historical status, widespread opinion among biblical scholars notwithstanding. My conclusions differ radically from Borg’s and Crossan’s as cited above. So time to address their claims:

Paul’s shorthand was not “Jesus died” . . . Really?

Yes, “crucified” is the term used in chapters 1 and 2 of 1 Corinthians. But this is scarcely enough to persuade anyone familiar with Paul’s letters as a whole to think that for Paul the central act of the gospel embedded an intrinsically anti-imperialist message. In fact, it seems B’s and C’s claim here is based entirely on two chapters in but one of Paul’s several letters.

1 Corinthians

By the end of the letter it seems Paul decided to tone down this supposedly “anti-imperialistic” rhetoric and let the Jesus followers off the hook by reminding them that they were acting out Jesus’ death only in their ritual meals, not his crucifixion:

11: 26 . . . you do show the Lord’s death till he come.

2 Corinthians

In chapter 5 Paul writes three times that “Jesus died” without a hint of “anti-imperialist” crucifixion.

5:14 . . . if one died for all . . .

5:15a . . . he died for all . . .

5:15b . . . him who died for them . . .

Galatians

1:1 . . . who raised him from the dead . . . [darn it! Paul just missed an excellent opportunity to drive home his anti-imperialist gospel by pronouncing God’s Yes to Jesus and No to Empire: why did he not think to write, “who raised him from the crucifixion!”? What happened to God’s “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the imperial power that crucified him?]

2:20 . . . I am crucified with Christ . . . [Gosh! So Paul deserved those floggings in Acts, and he really was justifiably executed as an anti-imperialist rebel in the end?]

2:21 . . . if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain . . .

3:1 . . . Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you . . . [Why did governor Pliny not pick up on such anti-imperialist sentiment when he asked Trajan how to handle the Christians?]

5:11 . . . if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased. . . . [Whoah a minute here! Does Paul really mean that the anti-imperialist message of the cross can be nullified by preaching circumcision??? Yet that is what acceptance of Borg’s and Crossan’s assertion would lead to! Ditto for 6:12.]

5:24 . . . And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. . . . [So drunkenness and fornication are sending anti-imperialistic messages?]

6:12 . . . they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. [See 5:11 above.]

6:14 . . . But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. [This passage simply makes nonsense any attempt to read into the crucifixion an anti-imperialist message.]

Romans

Maybe it was because he was writing a letter to Christians in the imperial centre of empire, but Paul makes but one solitary reference in this letter to Jesus being crucified. But hold on, the fact that he was writing to Rome should not decide the matter in this case, because in the same letter he actually says that Christians are to see themselves as subject to a daily “crucifixion with Christ”. Is he really writing to devotees living in the shadows of the imperial palace to acknowledge that they are “anti-imperialists” by their daily conduct? See 6:6 below:

5:6 . . . Christ died for the ungodly

5:8 . . . Christ died for us

5:10 . . . the death of his Son . . .

6:6 . . . our old man is crucified with him . . .

14: 9 . . . Christ both died, and rose . . .

14:15 . . . for whom Christ died

1 Thessalonians

4:14: . . . Jesus died and rose again . . .

5:9-10 . . . our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us . . .

Philippians

2:8 . . . even the death of the cross

3:10 . . . being made conformable to his death . . .

3:18 . . . enemies of the cross of Christ . . .

If “Christ crucified” were Paul’s shorthand for his gospel in order to stress its anti-imperialistic message, it appears from the above citations that this was a point he did not wish to emphasize very often, and even sometimes a wording he wanted to infuse with an alternative meaning, probably just to throw the secret police off the scent! 🙂

Did Imperial Rome really hold the crucifixion patent at the time of Paul?

The answer to this question depends on our starting assumptions. If we assume before commencing our enquiries that the Jesus story and Paul’s mission as per the Book of Acts are truly based heavily on historical accounts, then the answer will be “Yes”. Paul according to this assumption knew only Roman rule and that only Roman rulers administered crucifixion.

But if we attempt to put ourselves into the minds of first century moderately informed people, then we will know we have to allow for the idea of crucifixion having many provenances. Popular “novels” of the era not uncommonly include a dramatic crucifixion scene as part of the adventurous plot, including:

In the influential philosophical treatise, Timaeus, Plato describes the gateway between the corruptible realm where our earth resides and the incorruptible divine realm as a cross, in reference to where the celestial equator and ecliptic intersect.

Neighbouring peoples such as the Persians and Seleucids had carried out crucifixions. I cannot know if Rome’s neighbours at the time of Paul did, but crucifixion was not unique to Rome. Jews, in particular, would have held a cultural memory of how one of their kings, Alexander Jannaeus, had crucified 800 Pharisees. Josephus records this for us.

Paul speaks of “princes of this world” as crucifying Jesus, suggesting that it was not Rome but some other powers (compare the information we glean from Daniel) responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

A near Jewish contemporary of Paul and Jesus was Philo who also wrote about the crucifixion in ways surprisingly similar to Paul’s usage — allegorically, although not with any hint of anti-imperialist connotations.

Where is Philo?

Philo

So often I see Philo referred to in scholarly studies of biblical matters in order to clarify the intellectual context of the times. Curiously he has been overlooked by B and C. Here is Philo’s paragraph 61 from section XVII of On the Posterity of Cain and his Exile:

(61) Now the soul that subjects itself to bodily compunctions has the beforementioned inhabitants. Acheman, being interpreted, means, my brother, and Jesein means “outside of me,” and Thalmein means, some one in suspense; for it follows of necessity, that the body must be thought akin to the souls that love the body, and that external good things must be exceedingly admired by them, and all the souls which have this kind of disposition depend on dead things, and, like persons who are crucified, are attached to corruptible matter till the day of their death. (62) But the soul that is united to virtue has for its inhabitants those persons who are preeminent for virtue, persons whom the double cavern has received in pairs, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeckah, Leah and Jacob, virtues and those who possess them; Chebron itself keeping the treasure-house of the memorials of knowledge and wisdom, which is more ancient than Janis and the whole land of Egypt, for nature has made the soul more ancient than the body, that is than Egypt, and virtue more ancient than vice, that is than Janis (and the name Janis, being interpreted, means the command of answer), estimating seniority rather by dignity than by length of time.

A discussion of Philo’s allegorical use of the crucifixion image can be found on pages 186-7 of David Chapman’s Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion available on Google Books. If this Jew living under the same Roman imperial power as Paul did not associate “crucifixion” with imperialist or anti-imperialist sentiments, why should we think that Paul was compelled to do so?

Back to Borg’s and Crossan’s context of 2 Corinthians

After noting all these other passages above from the widely accepted genuine Pauline corpus, it is tempting to have a second look at the context of those passages B and C use to argue their case for an anti-imperialist message in the crucifixion.

1:23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness

If Paul were writing at a time of various seditions and troubles preceding the outbreak of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, how plausible is it, really, to suggest that Jews found an anti-imperialist gospel an offence of some sort? One would think from Josephus’s account of the various anti-Roman movements in the lead-up to the war that such a gospel would have been enthusiastically endorsed by a vast bulk of the Jews.

2:8 . . . [the princes of this world] would not have crucified the Lord of glory [Compare Daniel chapters 10 and 12 which reveal that there are divine or angelic Princes of Persia, Greece and Israel]

I am reminded of the claim of Jesus before Pilate in the Gospel of John 19:10-11

Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.

Paul clearly could not have had anything like the “tradition” that reached the author of the Gospel of John, since Paul speaks explicitly of plural princes of the world crucifying Jesus while the gospel has one human governer under the power of God alone or a single agent of God. More likely Paul had access to a narrative or treatise or group-think that could be traced back to Psalms 2: 2

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed. . .

(The author of the Gospel of Pilate may well have used this verse too when in the surviving opener of the manuscript he appears to have pictured Herod and Pilate sitting together at the judgement of Christ.)

Long time anti-imperialist bias

11 08_6972 John Dominic Crossan

Image by Lynceus via Flickr

Crossan’s earlier work, The Historical Jesus (and its popular format, Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography), was often criticized for letting show his Irish Catholic anti-

British-imperialist heritage. Methinks nothing has changed in that respect, and just as Crossan’s Jesus happened to preach Crossan’s politics, so Crossan’s Paul preaches Crossan’s politics as his gospel! How else to explain such a powerful assertion about a political message underpinning the phrase “Christ crucified” on the basis of so few citations and in defiance of so many more?

Methinks there is a stronger case for a non-historical origin for Paul’s use of the crucifixion image, but that’s another story.

But there’s more (maybe later)

I had intended the above point to have been covered in 6 lines when I started, and to follow up with B’s and C’s use of Acts and pitiful 20th century social analogies to justify their additional claims about the meaning of Paul’s message of both crucifixion and resurrection. But I’ve run out of beer and need to take a break.

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The Medieval Origins of the “Christ paid the penalty for us” Gospel.

I was about to start the next post in my series attempting to justify seriously questioning the “bedrock fact” status of the crucifixion of Jesus when I came across a new publication by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul : Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon.

There are some interesting enlightening details in it, and, (sorry to say, but Borg and Crossan are big enough to take and deserve it) some incredible howlers of both method and

conclusions that I would never have expected in a work by scholars of such high repute. Maybe this is because they were leaning more to accessing a popular reading public than the scholarly guild with this one. I am reminded of earlier posts where I have expressed some disgust against scholars who know better yet see fit to short change their popular readership like this. For my most recent protest, see my remarks on Pagels and King in A Spectrum of Jesus Mythicists and Mythers. I’ll address one of these lower high school level howlers in a future post. But first, something good and interesting from the book. (Anyway, I guess that’s one of the reasons for my blog — to attempt to make a bit more accessible some of the thinking of scholars on these sorts of topics.)

On page 127 they write:

For many centuries, the death of Jesus has been understood by most Christians as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, as a substitutionary atonement, as this theological understanding is called.

This way of seeing the death of Jesus is very familiar. Most Christians today, and most non-Christians who have heard anything about Christianity, think that the cross means, in slight variations:

Jesus died for our sins.

Jesus is the sacrifice for sin.

Jesus died in our place.

Jesus is the payment for sin.

For this understanding, the notions of punishment, substitution, and payment are central. We deserve to be punished by God for our sins, but Jesus was the substitute who paide the price. The issue is how we may be forgiven by God for our sin and guilt.

Then follows what must be a bombshell for most fundamentalists in particular:

But this understanding is less than a thousand years old. (p.128)

So where did it come from?

Borg and Crossan answer: It came from a theological treatise, Cur Deus Homo? = Why Did God Become Human? by Anselm of Canterbury, first published in 1097.

Anselm of Canterbury
Image via Wikipedia

This is Anselm’s argument:

  1. All people have disobeyed God. So all people are sinners.
  2. Someone has to pay for our sin. Forgiveness means that compensation must be made for the offence or crime. If no payment was required for sin, then it would imply God does not think is anything very important.
  3. Since God is infinite, our debt to him is also infinite. But we are finite, so are incapable of paying the price owed.
  4. Jesus is infinite, and when he became human he could pay the full cost of the penalty for us as a substitute sacrifice. So we can be forgiven.

And this has been the understanding of Christianity in general ever since! Well, I never knew that! Just Kipling Just So story, only it’s probably true! 😉

Mel Gibson and his “patron pope”, John-Paul II who apparently loved his The Passion of the Christ movie, have both preached the same Anselm Cur Deus Homo? doctrine.

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Reasons to question the historicity of the crucifixion

Jesus’ death by crucifixion at the direction of Pilate is very commonly cited as a “bedrock fact” of Christian history. I have previously shown that early Christianity was not united on Pilate’s role in the crucifixion: there was an early widespread belief that the Jewish King Herod was responsible. I would be very interested to hear any responses at all from those who do hold to the crucifixion itself as a “bedrock fact of history” pointing out the methodological and other fallacies behind the following series of posts demonstrating (I believe) that the crucifixion is at the very best an event of questionable historicity.

Reasons for questioning its historicity:

1. The earliest references to the crucifixion present it not as an historical event but as a theological doctrine, a point of faith, a matter of religious belief.

2. The crucifixion is itself always portrayed in canonical literature as a theological event with a theological meaning, and its power lies in its paradoxical relationship with conquest and victory. Attempts to appreciate its reality in terms of historicity or human horror are latecomers to the discussion.

3. The first gospel narrative of the crucifixion portrays it as a theological drama. Mark’s crucifixion is a mock Roman triumph, and teases out OT allegories. So even by the time the crucifixion is narrated as, in part, a human drama, it is shrouded in allegorical and theological trappings.

4. The authenticity of the first non-Christian references to the crucifixion have to be questioned on several grounds, including the fact that their existence is unknown in all other surviving records up till the fourth century.

5. The least controversial earliest non-Christian reference to Christianity (Pliny) fails to mention both the name of Jesus and the crucifixion.

One regularly reads among books discussing the historicity of Jesus that the crucifixion of Jesus is a bedrock established historical fact. No-one would have any reason to make up such a story about someone being crucified like a criminal or subversive, and who was nonetheless still venerated as the Messiah long afterwards, so the argument goes. There are further elaborations of this argument from “the criteria of embarrassment”. Tacitus is also regularly invoked as a pagan witness.

I would like to expand on or support each one of the above points — by examining the evidence in ways historians of nonbiblical topics normally do — and show why each ought to be considered at the very least grounds for pausing before routinely assuming that the crucifixion of Jesus was indeed “a bedrock historical event”.

1. The earliest references to the crucifixion present it not as an historical event but as a theological doctrine, a point of faith, a matter of religious belief.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.

Here the death of Jesus (we don’t know yet if it was by crucifixion or other means) is presented as an article of faith, something to be “believed” in order to believe anyone else who died will also live again. The death of Jesus is presented as a datum of faith of the same kind and nature as his resurrection. To believe in one is to believe in the other — the two are “an item” in this first testimony of the “death of Jesus”.

Galatians 2:19-3:2

For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?

Galatians 6:17

From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.

If Paul’s letter to the Galatians were the only reference to the crucifixion of Jesus I doubt that anyone could possibly conclude that it was an historical event. Even the life of Christ is as much a metaphor and theological tenet here as is the crucifixion. Paul gives no hint that there was a historical Jesus who was crucified for historical reasons. Rather, there was a death of Jesus that had a deeply personal religious, even mystical, meaning. The crucifixion was something that could be “portrayed before the very eyes” of the Galatians. Compare how Paul himself appeared among the Thessalonians:

1 Thessalonians 2:7

But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children

Which brings us to back to possibly the earliest letter of Paul. Here also appears the claim that the Jews did indeed kill Jesus:

1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews:

Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men:

Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.

If there were no doubts hanging over the authenticity of this passage then the historical crucifixion of Jesus would indeed have very strong support. But there are doubts about its authenticity, including some among scholars who do not question the historicity of Jesus or the crucifixion itself:

The Jews “Who Killed the Lord Jesus”

What then are we to make of the passage in 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, about the Jews “who killed the Lord Jesus”? Well, many scholars (e.g., Mack, Koester, Pearson, Meeks, Perkins, Brandon: see the Bibliography at end) have tended to make short work of it, dismissing it as an interpolation by some later editor or copyist. They do so on two grounds.

One is what they consider to be an unmistakable allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem in verse 16, an event which happened after Paul’s death. Here is the passage in its entirety, courtesy of the New English Bible:

“14You [referring to the Christians of Thessalonica] have fared like the congregations in Judea, God’s people in Christ Jesus. You have been treated by your countrymen as they are treated by the Jews, 15who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out, the Jews who are heedless of God’s will and enemies of their fellow-men, 16hindering us from speaking to the gentiles to lead them to salvation. All this time they have been making up the full measure of their guilt, and now retribution has overtaken them for good and all.”

This finality of God’s wrath must refer to an event on the scale of the first Jewish War (66-70), when the Temple and much of Jerusalem were destroyed, not, as is sometimes claimed (e.g., by R. E. Brown), to the expulsion of Jews from Rome (apparently for messianic agitation) by Claudius in the 40s. This gleeful, apocalyptic statement is hardly to be applied to a local event which the Thessalonians may or may not have been aware of several years later. Besides, Paul’s reference in verse 14 (which many take as the end of the genuine passage) is to a persecution by Jews in Judea, and even the killing of Jesus was the responsibility of Jews in that location. Offering a local event in Rome as a punishment for either crime seems somehow inappropriate. There are also those who question whether any such persecution of Christians took place prior to 70 (see Douglas Hare, The Theme of Jewish Persecution of Christians in the Gospel According to St. Matthew, p.30ff.), indicating that perhaps even verse 14 is part of the interpolation, by someone who had little knowledge of the conditions in Judea at the time of Paul’s letter. (Pearson, below, suggests this.)

It has been pointed out that there are no different textual traditions of 1 Thessalonians without the disputed passage. Since this is so, it is claimed, the insertion would have to have been made very early (soon after 70), when there would hardly have been enough time for the evolution from the mythical to the historical Jesus phase. But this is an unfounded assumption. Recently (see The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, Epp and MacRae, eds., 1989, p.207f.) some scholars have abandoned the old idea that the first corpus of Pauline letters was assembled no later than the year 90. They now see such a collection as coming around the time of Marcion in the 140s. Even though a few individual letters, like Romans and the two Corinthians, do seem to have been known by the turn of the century to people like Ignatius, the first witness to the epistle 1 Thessalonians in the wider Christian record (beyond the writer who used it to compose 2 Thessalonians, probably in that city) comes no earlier than that first corpus.

Thus the interpolation in 2:15-16 could have been made considerably later than 70. Even into the second century, Christian anti-Semitism remained high and the catastrophic events of the first Jewish War were very much alive in the memories of both Jew and gentile in the eastern empire. The inserted passage could have been made in the letter’s own community, before it entered the corpus. It is even barely conceivable that verse 16 refers to the outcome of the second Jewish Revolt (132-5), when Bar Kochba was crushed, Jews were expelled from Palestine, and a Roman city was built over the ruins of Jerusalem.

The second reason scholars tend to reject this passage as not genuine to Paul is because it does not concur with what Paul elsewhere says about his fellow countrymen, whom he expects will in the end be converted to Christ. The vicious sentiments in these verses is recognized as an example of “gentile anti-Judaism” and “foreign to Paul’s theology that ‘all Israel will be saved’.” (See Birger Pearson: “1 Thessalonians 2:13-16: A Deutero-Pauline Interpolation,” Harvard Theological Review 64 [1971], p.79-94, a thorough consideration of the question.)

We might also note that in Romans 11, within a passage in which he speaks of the guilt of the Jews for failing to heed the message about the Christ, Paul refers to Elijah’s words in 1 Kings, about the (largely unfounded) accusation that the Jews have habitually killed the prophets sent from God. Here Paul breathes not a whisper about any responsibility on the part of the Jews for the ultimate atrocity of the killing of the Son of God himself. This would be an inconceivable silence if the 2:15-16 passage in 1 Thessalonians were genuine and the basis of the accusation true.

Cited from Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle, supp03

My point is not to dismiss the likelihood of historicity on the grounds of a single debatable verse. My point is to demonstrate, here and in future posts, that by normal standards or rules of historical evidence (at least according to standards outside the guild of biblical studies) that the evidence for the historicity of Jesus is simply not “bedrock” by any means.


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