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.

Creating Jesus 7: What about the empty tomb?

I hope that you noticed that I did not locate the empty tomb stories as an impulse for christology. Rather I view them as a reaction to christology already in the making.

Why? Because the narratives and the letters of Paul suggest that the visions of Jesus were not originally connected to the empty tomb stories. The claim to visions of Jesus were not the same as the claim to the empty tomb. The two are merged in the gospel narratives. You can see how the two claims are woven together nicely in the Lukan narrative where you have a Petrine vision of Jesus which is separate from the empty tomb narrative but edited onto the story about the empty tomb. You have the empty tomb story that has been further embellished with the vision-eucharist story of the two on the road to Emmaus; and you have the confession of the eleven in Jerusalem that Jesus had appeared to Simon, a vision that has nothing to do with the empty tomb at all. We also have Paul's report that Jesus first appeared to Peter (nicknamed "Rocky"), an appearance that has nothing to do with the empty tomb narrative.

So the empty tomb is a later story that developed in order to offer an explanation for a christology that was beginning to ferment in the earliest community after Jesus' death. When we examine how the tradition came into being, it looks to be that the original claim to a vision was Peter's. It may be that we also have an original claim to vision by Mary Magdalene as well, since John preserves an interesting line: "Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord.'" This claim to vision has been attached to two empty tomb stories, one in which Mary finds the tomb empty, and the other in which Peter and the beloved disciple (=Lazarus), find the tomb empty. Paul doesn't appear to know the Magdalene claim, just as he does not know the empty tomb story (which isn't the same thing as resurrection from the dead, which I will address shortly).

What was Peter's vision, and Mary's vision? Peter's vision is never related to us in the narratives or Paul's letters. All we know is that the Lord "appeared" to Simon. The Johannine author transmits an elaborate story of Mary going to the tomb and seeing Jesus there in an unrecognizable form. She mistakes him for a gardener. Since the later empty tomb stories all have Mary at the tomb, and John ties her vision to this visit, I think that the Magdalene claim to vision (whatever the vision actually was) may have been a claim to have seen him when she visited his tomb. Like Peter, the claim itself was that Jesus "appeared" to her.

It is not easy to piece together what might have happened. All we have recorded is what they thought happened, or better, how they interpreted what was happening to them. I have blogged on the resurrection of Jesus before, so this is not new news to most of my readers. I maintain that Jesus' physical dead body was not raised. This is not what happened, although this is one of the interpretations of what happened that was put into place by some of the early followers. And at that it isn't even the earliest interpretation! The earliest interpretation appears in the Gospel of Luke, "they supposed that they saw a spirit" (Luke 24:37). Now the Lukan author is going to make an argument against this interpretation, but this argument is later than the original holdings of the disciples. It is a corrective to an earlier tradition that Peter and Mary had visions of Jesus as a spirit (or ghost?!) after his death.

We don't have to look hard to find all sorts of psychological, anthropological, and sociological studies to point out that the death of loved ones, especially traumatic deaths, frequently result in post-traumatic experiences including vivid dreams and sightings of the deceased. In fact, I can relate to this very well on a personal level. When my mother died unexpectedly ten years ago, I experienced very vivid dreams of her visiting me. In these dreams, it was as if she never died, she had only been hidden away by the doctors, who continued to work to heal her. Once cured, she would walk out of a door and embrace me. I would respond stupefied. Why would the doctors have told me she died, when she lived and they knew it? Always there was a sense of relief that she was really alive.

If I had lived in a society that understood dreams to be messages from God, visions to be interpreted, I might have understood my own dreams of my mother as a religious experience, rather than as one of the ways that my own psyche was trying to deal with and accept her death. Given what the gospel narratives tell us, the visions of Peter and Mary (and others?) were interpreted as religious experiences. The simple explanation that they saw Jesus' spirit appears to have not been enough of an explanation. It wasn't simply a ghost. They move to locate their visions of the deceased Jesus within their Jewish belief system, to align them with Judaism's teachings about what happens to a person after death. This is how and why the visions of Jesus' spirit begin to be perceived as visions of Jesus resurrected.

The resurrected body was understood to be a different thing by different Jews. There was no consensus teaching. There appears to have been a wide range of belief even among the first Christians, from the belief that your raising will be as a new spiritual body of glory like the angels (Paul) to the belief that your raising will be of your physical fleshly body from the grave, a body that still needed to eat (Luke). The empty tomb stories were created in order to correct the earlier tradition that Peter (and others?) had visions of Jesus as a spirit, and its original interpretation (which Paul knows and supports, and Luke alludes to), that Jesus' resurrection was a resurrection of Jesus as a spiritual body.