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07 early Christian beliefs

The death of Jesus in early Christian belief

So far we have reviewed what we know about the practice of crucifixion in the Roman world, we have surveyed the earliest Christian texts that refer to the death of Jesus, we have considered the probable date of Jesus' death, and canvassed the options for assigning responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. Now it is time to trace how Christians reflected on the meaning of Jesus' death in the formative 50 or so years after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by Roman forces in 70 CE.

The Deutero-Pauline Letters

Three of the NT letters attributed to Paul are now recognised as probably coming from the next generation of Pauline tradition: Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Thessalonians. These three letters reveal the continued development of the Pauline "trajectory" within earliest Christianity, and they are best considered separately from another set of canonical Pauline pseudepigrapha, the so-called Pastoral Epistles: 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus.

Interestingly, the death of Jesus is not mentioned in 2 Thessalonians and is not a common theme in Colossians or Ephesians. In the three references to the cross that are found in these letters, it is significant that the death of Jesus on the cross is primarily considered as an act of God that achieves the liberation/redemption of humanity. Its original significance as a raw expression of human brutality has been brushed over in the service of theology:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,  he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. [Col 1:19–22]

... erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. [Col 2:14]

He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,  and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near ... [Eph 2:15–17]

The Pastoral Epistles

These three letters were probably composed around 125 CE, and they represent a point of view with a deep interest in internal stability and external respectability. It is interesting to note the total absence of any reference to the death of Jesus in these letters. The nearest we get is this interesting statement in 2 Tim 1:9–10:

This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 

Matthew and Luke-Acts

Matthew is best understood as an enlarged and revised edition of Mark, designed especially to meet the needs of Christian communities with strong attachments to Torah-observant Rabbinic Judaism in the final quarter of the first century.

Mark's characterisation of Jesus as a heroic individual who fell foul of the civic authorities, is adjusted to give Jesus more of a Mosaic character. All of Mark's references are taken over in Matthew, but at times Matthew increases the rhetoric. We have already noted the infamous blood libel passages inserted into the trial scenes by Matthew, as well as the ramping up of the supernatural portents that accompanied Jesus death.

In Luke-Acts we have a two-volume work that continues the story beyond Easter into the first couple of decades after the death of Jesus. This not only allows Luke to tell the story a little differently, but also provides opportunities for Luke to create appropriate speeches and sermons in which his characters refer to the death of Jesus. While these apologetic speeches were once seen as primitive kerygmatic material that has been preserved by Luke, it is perhaps better to see them as second-century inventions by Luke. As such they reveal what Christians were thinking about the cross in the first few decades of the second century.

As Luke sets the scene for the death of Jesus he is careful to have Jesus offer a prophetic lament over the city that has always (sic) rejected and killed the prophets sent by God:

In his account of the crucifixion scene itself, Jesus dies a more heroic death and is portrayed as very much in control of himself. He is concerned for others, and in some MS traditions even asks God to forgive those who are putting him to death:

A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” 

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.  [Luke 23:27–49 NRSV]

Luke's understanding of the death of Jesus is most clearly expressed in the speeches that he puts on the lips of key characters in the Acts of the Apostles, part two of his multi-volume work:

[Peter on the day of Pentecost] 
You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. [Acts 2:22–24 NRSV]

[Peter speaking in the Temple courtyard] 
When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you. And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer." [Acts 3:12–18 NRSV]

[Peter speaking to the Sanhedrin] 

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’" [Acts 4:8–11 NRSV]

[Stephen speaking to the Sanhedrin] 

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to doWhich of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” [Acts 7:51–53 NRSV]

[Peter speaking to Cornelius and his household] 

“We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” [Acts 10:39–42 NRSV]

[Paul preaching at the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia] 

“Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead;” [Acts 13:27–30 NRSV]

[Paul before Agrippa] 

“To this day I have had help from God, and so I stand here, testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place: that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” [Acts 26:22–23 NRSV]

The Gospel and Letters of John

In the Gospel of John we find that the death of Jesus on the cross has become a key theological concept. For this trajectory within early Christianity there was more at stake than divine providence at work in the death of a prophet. At various points in the Gospel it is made clear that for this writer, the death of Jesus is the moment of climax: the hour.
  • John the Baptist identifies Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29)
  • The incident in the Temple is moved to the beginning of the gospel and explicitly linked to Jesus' death (John 2:13–22)
  • In the discourse with Nicodemus there are multiple references to the death of Jesus (John 3:14–16)
  • Jesus predicts that the dead will hear his voice (John 5:25–28)
  • Jesus initially avoids travel to Judea due to his knowledge of a Jewish plot to kill him (John 7:1,25–45; 8:40–41,59)
  • As the Good Shepherd, Jesus lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11–18)
  • Caiaphas' prophecy about one man dying the sake of the nation (John 11:47–53)
  • The grain of wheat that dies and bears much fruit (John 12:23–24)
  • Now the hour has come, the Son of Man must be lifted up (John 12:27–32)
  • In the trial scene, John develops the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus (John 18 & 19)
  • During his crucifixion Jesus acts with compassion towards his mother and the beloved disciple (John 19:25–27)

By the time of the Johannine letters, the death of Jesus has become a sacrificial offering that takes away sin:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at allIf we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1John 1:5–2:2 NRSV)

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  

(1John 4:9–10 NRSV)

Letter to the Hebrews

This mysterious early Christian document is very different from most of letters preserved in the NT. It is not addressed to a specific congregation or region. It is anonymous. We do not know its provenance. Yet Hebrews engages in some radical theological explorations as it imagines Jesus as a new kind of high priest, modelled on the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, who offers his own blood as the sacrifice of atonement.

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submissionAlthough he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. [Hebrews 5:7–10 NRSV]

For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. [Hebrews 7:26–28 NRSV]

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.  [Hebrews 9:11–15 NRSV]

Thus it was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than theseFor Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:23–28 NRSV]

And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sinBut when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. (Hebrews 10:11–14 NRSV) Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before ulooking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. [Hebrews 12:1–4 NRSV]

Letter of James

Interestingly the Letter of James does not refer to the death of Jesus. While the second coming of Jesus is anticipated, this Christian wisdom text has no interest in the circumstances of Jesus' death. James offers a life-affirming set of instructions, and the death of Jesus simply plays no part in the argument of this letter. It seems that the James tradition and those loyal to Paul, differed over more than the need to keep Torah. For Paul the cross at the centre of the gospel. For James it did not even rate a mention.

1 & 2 Peter, and Jude

Unlike James, 1 Peter has numerous references to the death of Jesus, beginning with the opening line:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,  To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithyniawho have been chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood:  [1Peter 1:1–2 NRSV]

Other references to the death of Jesus in 1 Peter include:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiryinquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated when it testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ” [1Peter 1:10–11 NRSV]

You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. [1Peter 1:18–20 NRSV]

If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right, and suffer for it, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. [1Peter 2:20–25 NRSV]

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit”

[1Peter 3:17–18 NRSV]

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin)so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God.” [1Peter 4:1–2 NRSV]

Neither 2 Peter nor Jude make any references to the death of Jesus. Their focus is on internal dissension (false teachers, schism, etc), and the need to remain faithful until the end of the world. The traditions about the death of Jesus have not impressed themselves as relevant to the pastoral needs of these letters.

The Revelation to John …

Although the Apocalypse shares a great dealt of the apocalyptic outlook seen in 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter, and Jude, it does make explicit use of the traditions about the death of Jesus. Jesus is quintessentially the dead-but-alive one, although his death by crucifixion is never mentioned.

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: 

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and fand from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness [martyr], the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. [Revelation 1:4–5 NRSV]

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last,and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” [Revelation 1:17–18 NRSV]

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life ... 

[Revelation 2:8 NRSV]

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven sealand I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” 

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” 

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped. 

[Revelation 5:1–14 NRSV]