Allan Bevere makes the important point that Jesus was not crucified because he went around telling people to love one another. “It doesn’t take a profound thinker to know that the primary motivation for this dehistorizing and detheologizing of Jesus is to domesticate his life and work into something more palatable to modern sensibilities.” I’m not sure about the “detheologizing” of Jesus. In many ways, that seems to me to be a rather good thing to do. But certainly I object to the “dehistorizing” and domestication of Jesus, as does James McGrath, who drew attention to Bevere’s blog post on his Facebook page.
What’s love got to do with it?
There is actually very little said about love in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus did not go into Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist and proclaim that the love of God was at hand. No parable begins, “The love of God may be compared to….”
There are two distinct “love” sayings, both presupposing the immediate Jewish context. The first is the command to love God and neighbour as a fulfilment of the Law: “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40). If the Jews had loved God and had loved their neighbours, the nation wouldn’t have been in the mess that it was in. The second is the further requirement that the disciples should love their enemies (Matt. 5:43-44; Lk. 6:27, 32-36). In the context of Jesus’ teaching this is most likely to be a reference to enemies of the disciples within Israel—or at most, among the diaspora. The command is part of Jesus’ intensification of the Law: “You have heard it said…. But I say to you…” (Matt. 5:38-39). Gentiles are not in view.
The reinterpretation may even not have been that novel. The wording of the “love your neighbour as yourself” command comes from the Greek version of Leviticus 19:18. The context makes it clear that it was already understood as an injunction to love Jewish enemies, who are also neighbours:
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:17–18 LXX)
In other words, there was nothing very remarkable in the insistence of the “historical” Jesus that the Jews should love God and neighbour and that his disciples should love those Jewish “neighbours” who would oppose and persecute them as they continued his mission to Israel.
Jesus and the ways of the world
However, Bevere’s explanation of his rejection of the romanticised and domesticated Jesus of liberal and progressive thought—and of much modern evangelicalism, for that matter—is also not without its problems, I think.
But a domesticated revolutionary will not bring about serious change; he will just reinforce the agendas of those who are frankly doing nothing more than using Jesus as a prop to get what they want. Jesus was crucified because he presented a true alternative to the ways of the world that could not and will not be displayed in the politics of the current age. Jesus was not killed for promoting right-wing violence on behalf of the state, and he was not crucified for advocating a progressive social agenda. Jesus was crucified because he presented a serious threat to the status quo in all forms; and it will not do just to present his life and ministry as supporting any modern political and social agenda. And those Christians who attempt to do so are domesticating Jesus into doing their bidding.
To say that Jesus was crucified “because he presented a true alternative to the ways of the world,” is itself a dehistorising statement. Jesus was crucified because he had launched a sustained, prophetically inspired attack on the authorities in Jerusalem, because he had denounced the corruption of the temple system, and because he had made some sort of claim regarding his own future exalted status and authority with respect to Israel.
There is nothing in the texts to suggest that he aimed to present an alternative to the ways of Israel, let alone of the world. He modelled in certain limited respects an authentic righteousness for Israel without attempting to subvert Torah observance, but this is not why he was crucified. No one was threatening to arrest the rich young ruler on trumped up charges and have him executed. Jesus taught his disciples a radical, trusting, selfless, forgiving, and enemy-loving lifestyle, but this was to be a way of mission during troubled times. The alternative way of life for Israel was already given in the Law.
Jesus presented a threat to the status quo but only because he correctly predicted that Israel’s God would overturn the status quo, making the first last, and the last first, and then would vindicate his Son—as the suffering Son of Man—by giving him glory, dominion, and kingdom. The alternative was not an ideal way of life modelled by Jesus in Galilee and Judea, it was a fundamentally different future, over which Jesus would reign as Israel’s king.
Living up to expectations
Bevere concludes: “Jesus has not come to conform to our expectations. We must conform to his.” Well, no. Jesus did not conform to the expectations of his own people, though arguably many recognised his likeness to the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah especially; and the suggestion that the re-historised Jesus should conform to the expectations of twenty-first century Christians is simply nonsensical. But by the same token, the historical Jesus expected nothing of us. The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels demanded a great deal of his compatriots, but he did not look beyond the fate of Jerusalem and the temple and the mission of his disciples to Israel as the age of second temple Judaism drew to a calamitous conclusion, within a generation.
Beyond that, we must ask about the expectations of the heavenly Lord, who no doubt requires us to “fulfil the whole Law” in some sense.
> Jesus was crucified because he had launched a sustained, prophetically inspired attack on the authorities in Jerusalem, because he had denounced the corruption of the temple system,
Acts 6:7 reports that great numbers of priests joined the Jerusalem church.
This seems odd on this account of the meaning of Jesus’ prophetic ministry. It has been argued by some scholars (including within your P.OST postings, IIRC) that Jesus’ prophetic ministry was in significant measure oriented toward calling Israel to repent of its militant aspirations (the gehenna warnings, Lk 13:1-3, etc.). NTW’s discussion of the precedents of OT prophetic acts suggests (though I think he doesn’t explicitly assert this) that the Cross itself was a kind of ‘performed prophecy’ of Israel’s future on its present course. The problem wasn’t what Jesus was saying, which was in significant ways in the interests of the priestly class (who would lose everything if there were a war) but what some (those who were longing for the redemption of Israel from its humiliation) in wider Israel were hearing and interpreting about “who Jesus was” — they wanted a redeemer king to liberate them from Rome. At that last Passover, things came to a head with popular acclamation of Jesus as king and (what seems to be) a contemporaneous stasis in Jerusalem initiated by militants (who may themselves have been Jesus enthusiasts; cf. Lk 24:21).
If, alternatively, Jesus was crucified to prevent or delay the war with Rome (which seems to be both the authorities’ and the Evangelist’s view of the matter in Jn 11:50 and surrounding — and I suggest also Jesus’ view, as in Mk 10:45), and if it was later affirmed by the apostles that this had been YHWH’s intention all along, priestly enthusiasm for the early post-Ascension Jesus movement makes a lot of sense.
Perhaps Jesus was a peacemaker between Jew and Gentile, for a generation.
If the Apostles had continued (and presumably they did continue) Jesus’ warnings against violent uprising to cast off the Roman yoke and usher in the Kingdom by the strength of human might — and this might be what is meant in part of the Acts 2 Pentecost sermon; the ‘corrupt generation’ was not the priests, but the men of violence who wanted to inaugurate the Kingdom by violent means — this is a message that would have been well-received by people who had an interest in preserving the status quo in Israel. The priests would have liked what they were hearing; the Pharisees, particularly those in the tradition of Shammai, would have been less enthusiastic. And this is just what we see in Acts.
One could argue that it is inconceivable that the Apostles would have approved, affirmed and tried to preserve a corrupt status quo in Israel’s religious life. But that assumes that the alternative was not worse. Perhaps they were trying to avoid a more terrible outcome, and that entailed putting up with a less-than-satisfactory present state of affairs.
As you have put it many times, “history is messy”.
The “crooked generation” is tēs genes tēs skolias. For skolios BDAG suggests a connotation of “morally bent or twisted, crooked, unscrupulous, dishonest.” That would indicate corruption rather than violence, I think. And note Deuteronomy 32:4-5:
God—his works are genuine, and all his ways are justice. A faithful god, and there is no injustice, a righteous and holy Lord; blemished children, not his, have sinned, a generation, crooked (genea skolia) and perverse.
And Jesus seems to make reference in quite general terms to a “evil and adulterous generation.”
The saying about the kingdom of God suffering violence is notoriously difficult to interpret (Matt. 11:12), but in context isn’t it more likely that it is the violence suffered by the prophets, etc., that is in view, not violence against Rome?
I find this an intriguing historical perspective, but I still have my doubts.
It’s likely that disaffected priests, disgusted with the corruption of the temple, became obedient to the faith. Fitzmyer notes that the original nucleus of the Qumran community were priestly families, who were critical of the “last priests of Jerusalem, who amass money and wealth by plundering the people” (1QpHab 9:4).
There may be an anti-militancy note in Jesus’ teaching—the story of the seven evil spirits, for example. But Jesus’ criticism is directed pretty much entirely against the scribes, elders, Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians. Violent zealotry emerged at a later time, didn’t it?
The Galileans slaughtered by Pilate were innocently presenting sacrifices to the priests, not engaging in armed action.
Yes, the Gehenna warnings have the siege of Jerusalem in view, but I don’t think that Jesus has anything to say about the immediate causes of the war.
And what are we to make of Barabbas—a violent insurrectionary who is let off the hook?
In the John 11 passage, there is no suggestion that Rome will destroy the temple and the nation because Jesus was about to lead an armed revolt, only that people will believe in. The link with the resurrection of Lazarus is important. The subversion lies in the fact that resurrection points to a dramatic intervention of God (cf. Dan. 12:1-3), not a violent action. In the Daniel narratives, it is passive rather than active resistance that wins the day.
If there is an allusion to Isaiah 53 in Mark 10:45, then the issue is not the prospect of violent revolt but the suffering of a community that has been punished.
Finally, I would have thought that the general tenor of Jesus’ teaching is that the war was inevitable, not that it would be delayed.
Thank you, Andrew.
re: the emergence of violent zealotry,
My understanding (which is entirely 2nd-hand, and is strongly influenced by NTW’s Jesus and the Victory of God) is that violent zeal was a theme in Israel from the time of the Maccabean revolt until the final calamity of the Bar Kochba revolt, a period of about 3 centuries. After the Romans took over in the mid 1st century BCE, there were significant uprisings every several decades, and they always failed. This is the background, perhaps what Jesus meant by ‘the signs of the times’, that presumably was the underpinning of Jesus’ belief that a war was coming and that it was certain to end in disaster for Israel. IIRC, NTW thinks that this background is in view in Jesus’ saying about the Kingdom and violent men.
re: Barabbas — I think this is a strength of the proposal. The procedure of presenting a choice of malefactors to be released is so unusual that I have read that scholars think it is a fabrication of the Evangelist. I wonder whether it may have been Jesus’ idea, advocated to Pilate to convince him of the necessity of condemning Jesus to crucifixion, something that Pilate seems to have been very reluctant to do. The crowd’s response, preference for the man of violence over the incompetent would-be king, had the effect of showing Pilate that the Passover crowds in Jerusalem were ready to revolt (and this in the context of the stasis that Barabbas had participated in). They wanted the man who had proved his zeal for Israel in preference to the man who had failed to draw blood before being captured. Doesn’t this suggest that a general revolt might be imminent? Something had to be done immediately to tamp down the situation. It needed to be highly visible and something that would spread by word of mouth far and wide. I suspect that is why Pilate insisted that the charge against Jesus, the crime for which he was crucified, be that he was Israel’s king, not merely that he had claimed to be.
The aim was surely to warn everyone who heard about these things that Rome would not tolerate the emergence of any king in Israel. Pilate was trying to de-escalate the situation. Barabbas, released, might go on to make more trouble, but if the enthusiasts for revolt could, as a group, be demoralized, that trouble would be relatively minor.
NTW has argued that the lestes crucified with Jesus may have been insurgent militants; IOW, men like Barabbas who had was to have been crucified with them. One of them seems to have been a believer in Jesus. That there were bloody-minded men among Jesus’ followers, even in his inner circle, is suggested by the incident with James and John and the unwelcoming Samaritan village.
I agree that Jesus criticized the injustice and unrighteousness of Israel’s rulers, and he called for those rulers to repent. But there also seems to have been a general call to the entire nation to repent of something or other in view of the imminence of the Kingdom. The repentance of Israel’s religious elite from its exploitive practices toward the masses would not have impaired the move toward war. The elites (among the priests, at least) benefitted from the present arrangements and were already opposed to war; they weren’t the ones pushing for it. I find it difficult to believe that Jesus’ warnings about what would happen in the future war were not made with the hope that they would induce repentance, at least among some (perhaps only among his most committed followers).
It’s not a big move from thinking that the warnings were intended to be effective (in at least some hearers’ hearts) to the idea that Jesus formulated a costly plan that would discourage the entire nation and prevent or at least delay the war.
My interest in this hypothesis is motivated primarily by the problem that I find the conventional theories of atonement to all be unsatisfactory in one way or another. They’re all founded on a misunderstanding of ‘wrath’, so it’s not surprising that they have difficulties conforming fully to the biblical narrative, interpreted historically rather than theologically.
Perhaps the churches have been wrong to want to have a ‘theory of atonement’; perhaps there should not be any theory of atonement at all.
That doesn’t seem right either. That the Cross accomplished something, even a great victory over ‘the Powers’, seems to be taken for granted by Paul and by the author of Hebrews. Jesus’ crucifixion was central to Paul’s preaching; why? Are early Christian writers guilty already of over-theologizing the meaning of Jesus, or was there some concrete thing to which they were referring?
(Aside: this proposal blends elements of the penal substitution, satisfaction, ransom, moral influence and Christus Victor theories of atonement, which strikes me as a strength, but perhaps I’m slipping back into a theological rather than historical mentality in finding this appealing)
Is there a Narrative Historical theory of atonement and account of the efficacy of the Cross? You have, for example, written of penal substitution as an historical reality — Jesus suffered the penalty of Barabbas’ crime. Did that substitution accomplish anything? The NT writers seem to think that it did, but I’m not clearly seeing ‘what that was’ within the Narrative Historical framework.
> The aim was surely to warn everyone who heard about these things that Rome would not tolerate the emergence of any king in Israel. Pilate was trying to de-escalate the situation. Barabbas, released, might go on to make more trouble, but if the enthusiasts for revolt could, as a group, be demoralized, that trouble would be relatively minor.
The thought just occurred that Pilate’s timing of the scheduled crucifixion of Barabbas and the two lestes (who may have been his accomplices in the recent statis) might be significant. They were to be crucified immediately before Passover, the annual remembrance of Israel’s liberation from bondage in Egypt.
This strikes me as a highly provocative thing to do, and suggestive of a 1st century ‘psychological operation.’ Perhaps the purpose of the timing was to remind Israel that Rome was powerful enough to keep Israel subjugated, and that everyone who attempted to assert Israel’s independence by violent means would meet this end. IOW, the purpose was to demoralize the war party in Israel.
Crucifying Israel’s widely acclaimed king (who, in the view of the people, had given abundant and convincing evidence of having power and authority from YHWH) would be even more effective, and in the context of the Passover remembrance, even more demoralizing. The gods of Rome are more powerful than the god of Israel. “The Powers” are more powerful than YHWH.
That this was actually a victory over those “Powers” can be understood if the Cross delayed Rome’s and their triumph over Israel.
Sorry, it’s taken a while to get round to this.
Agreed about violent zeal. But Josephus’ Zealot party may only have appeared somewhat later in the years before the war, I believe; and “Simon the Zealot” may only have been “Simon the zealous”. In Matthew and Mark he is “Simon the Cananaean,” oddly.
As far as the story goes, the pressure on Pilate to condemn Jesus in place of Barabbas comes from the leadership and from the crowd. I don’t see any gap or flaw in the narrative that encourages us to invent a conspiracy between Jesus and Pilate.
Is there any reason to think that the call to the whole nation to repent had revolt specifically in mind? Isn’t it just a general call to Torah-based righteousness, summed up by the two commandments, love God, love neighbour?
I understand your problem with theories of atonement. As you point out, the substitution of Jesus for Barabbas amounts to penal substitution. If we then call that “atonement,” we are not adding a more meaningful theological or metaphysical layer to the account—except insofar as God chose to forgive on the strength of Jesus’ action. It is the historical event that was decisive and transformative, though the “event” cannot be isolated from what happened next—resurrection, exaltation, and crucially the overwhelming experience of the prophet-messianic Spirit a few weeks later. No theory of atonement is needed. It’s all a matter of what happened—what Jesus did, what God did, what the followers of Jesus experienced.
- Penal substitutionary atonement and narrative theology
- A pragmatic non-theory of the atonement
- Atonement, without the theoretical nonsense
- Paul’s argument about the atonement of Israel in Romans 3-4
- As Good Friday approaches, it is time once again to insist that theories of the atonement are a waste of space
- Why we need to let some theological air out of the over-inflated balloon of atonement theory
- Stephen Burnhope: Atonement and the New Perspective
Thank you, Andrew.
re: “Finally, I would have thought that the general tenor of Jesus’ teaching is that the war was inevitable, not that it would be delayed.”
This stimulates the thought that perhaps Jesus did prophecy that the disaster would be delayed … for the better part of a generation, but would occur before the present generation had completely passed away.
If Mt 16:28 refers to Jesus’ understanding of the timing of the coming calamity, it suggests that Jesus thought that most but not all of the present generation would have passed away before the war and its desolations took place. This seems to imply that Jesus thought the war would not occur for a number of decades, until most but not all of the present generation had departed the scene. (I think I have seen this argument at P.OST, but perhaps it was somewhere else.)
Elsewhere Jesus asserted that only the Father new the details of when this would happen. Nevertheless Jesus was confident that it would happen before the present generation had completely passed away, but not until much of it had passed away.
Why would he expect that? That seems a remarkably precise prediction.
Perhaps it was a “conditions-based prediction” — perhaps the passing away of much of the present generation was a precondition for the war breaking out. Why would that be?
Perhaps Jesus had in mind something that he would do that would create a memorable deterrent to the launching of the war, a deterrent that would be effective while living memory of it was strong in Israel. But when the current generation had substantially passed from the scene and a new generation had arisen, a generation that did not know Jesus from lived experience, a generation that did not remember the calamity of the AD30 Passover, when Rome executed Israel’s hoped-for redeemer king, it would no longer be an effective deterrent and the war would break out.
Perhaps it would be valid to hypothesize that from the perspective of Jesus’ intentions, he died the way he died to deter his followers from participating in the coming war, and thereby saved them from (a very high likelihood of) dying in it. If the war actually was delayed, that was incidental to his intentions.
It is a provocative thought that this, conceivably, was part of the purpose of the institution of a memorial of his death at the hands of the Romans.
I can see that I’m way ‘off the reservation’, and will go quiet for a while.