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.