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00 introduction


The fact that a chapter on Jesus could be written without directly discussing his death and resurrection is itself significant. 

For many traditional Christians, his death and resurrection are among the small number of most important things about Jesus: 
  • his miraculous conception, 
  • his sacrificial death, and
  •  his triumphant resurrection from the dead "on the third day." 

On the other hand, religious progressives—and even progressive Christians—find it natural to reflect on the significance of Jesus without engaging directly with these three moments in the Jesus narrative. While traditional Christians emphasize the death and resurrection of Jesus as the focal events of salvation, religious progressives tend to emphasize the life of Jesus—what he did, and what he said. For religious progressives the death of Jesus is often understood primarily as the last of his acts, rather than as a single moment of cosmic significance and the ultimate reason for everything else, including a virginal conception, the parables, the miracles, etc.

However we approach the subject of Jesus' death, it is clear that we are dealing with the most famous scene from the biblical accounts of Jesus' life. 

The circumstances of Jesus' death indicate a specific—and negative—judgment of his mission and message by the powerful elite of his own time and place. The ways in which other people have subsequently interpreted the way that Jesus died (what happened, why it happened, and what it may mean to them) have resulted in a radical remaking of Jesus. Jesus is transformed by the cross, irrespective of why we think he died in that way, or what we think happened to his mortal remains after his demise. As Marcus Borg reminds us with his evocative terminology, "Jesus after Easter" is what became of the "Jesus before Easter" as a result of his death, and the meaning people found in that death.

In pursuing this topic we stand at an intersection of history and religious faith.

There is no more secure historical event involving Jesus than his death by crucifixion in Jerusalem. At the same time, this is the event from the life of Jesus that is most heavily loaded with theological significance. It is, after all, the cross that became the universal symbol of the religion that derives (in one sense or another) from Jesus. 

This discussion will take us into "holy ground" but also into secure historical terrain.