What Did Jesus Do?
Historians of religion have an ironic rule for evaluating the Bible’s claims about history: the less sense a claim makes, the more likely it is to be true. That is, the less theological sense a claim makes, the more likely it is to be true. After all, if the Bible’s authors were going to fabricate things, you’d expect them to fabricate things that coexisted easily with their religious beliefs. When you see them struggling to reconcile some ill-fitting fact with their theology, chances are that the fact is indeed fact—a truth so well known in their circles that there was no way of denying or ignoring it.
That’s one reason the biblical accounts of King Josiah’s zealous devotion to Yahweh, discussed in chapter 6, are credible. Given that Josiah goes on to die ignominiously, and that Israel’s fortunes then spiral toward catastrophe, it would have been theologically simpler for the Bible’s monotheistic editors to describe Josiah as a rampant polytheist who incurred God’s enduring wrath. His opposition to polytheism is so theologically inconvenient that the best explanation for its inclusion in the Bible is its truth.
This criterion of credibility—call it the rule of theological inconvenience—is one reason biblical historians attach so much credence to the Crucifixion of Jesus. There is no written reference to Jesus being crucified until two decades after his death, but we can be pretty sure the Crucifixion happened, in part because it made so little theological sense.
That may sound strange. What could make more sense to a Christian than Jesus’s dying on the cross? The Crucifixion embodies one of Christianity’s central themes, God’s love for humanity. As the iconic Christian verse John 3:16 puts it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.…” And, as powerfully as these words ring now, imagine their impact in the ancient world. Throughout history, gods had been beings to whom you made sacrifices. Now here was a god that not only demanded no ritual sacrifices from you but himself made sacrifices—indeed, the ultimate sacrifice—for you. All of humanity’s sins, including yours, could be wiped off the ledger by God’s self-sacrificing redemption.
And this reversal of sacrifice was only Act One of Crucifixion theology. Act Two—the Resurrection of Jesus after his execution and burial—was an equally potent symbol. It illustrated both the possibility of eternal life and the fact that anyone of any ethnicity and any social class could qualify for it; all they had to do was accept and comprehend the Resurrection of Jesus himself. In full form John 3:16 reads: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but should have everlasting life.” The book of Galatians spelled out this open admissions policy: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Universal salvation was on offer from a deeply compassionate and giving God, and it’s hard to imagine a more resonant symbol of this fact than the Crucifixion of his son.
Why, then, if the Crucifixion fits into Christian theology so logically and powerfully, would scholars say that it passes the test of theological inconvenience (or, as they call it, the “criterion of dissimilarity”)? Because, however theologically convenient the Crucifixion may seem now, it didn’t seem that way back when it happened. For Jesus’s followers the Crucifixion was, in addition to emotionally wrenching, a serious rhetorical problem.
After all, Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah. (“Messiah” is the meaning of the Greek word that became Jesus’s title: Christos—or, in English, Christ.) Today Christians understand the Messiah as someone sent from on high who makes the ultimate sacrifice—his life—for humanity, bringing spiritual salvation to the world. But back in Jesus’s time, losing your life wasn’t part of the Messiah’s job description.
The word “messiah” came from the Hebrew verb meaning “to apply oil to,” to anoint. In the Hebrew Bible, Israel’s kings were sometimes called Yahweh’s “messiah”—God’s anointed one. By the end of the first millennium BCE, as Jesus’s birth approached, some Jewish sects saw an “anointed one,” a messiah, figuring centrally in their apocalyptic visions of a coming, final battle with God’s enemies. The most common expectation seems to have been that this messiah would be, like most of the Hebrew Bible’s “anointed ones,” a king. Hence the words that, according to the Gospel of Mark, were inscribed on the cross by Jesus’s persecutors: “King of the Jews.” And hence their sarcasm as he died: “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.”
Being a king wasn’t a strict prerequisite for being messiah. The Hebrew Bible had occasionally referred to a high priest or even a prophet as divinely anointed. This diversity was reflected in apocalyptic thought around the time of Jesus. According to the Dead Sea Scrolls—left behind by a sect that settled near the Dead Sea more than a century before Jesus’s birth—the climactic battle between good and evil would be fought under the leadership of two messianic figures, a priest and a prince. And even if the messiah was a king, his triumph wouldn’t necessarily come by military force alone. The “Psalms of Solomon,” written in the decades before Jesus’s birth, envisioned a messianic king who would “destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth.”
Still, one thing that all anticipated messiahs of Jesus’s era had in common was that they would aid a climactic triumph over evil by exercising leadership here on earth—which meant, for starters, not dying before the climactic triumph over evil. Thus, according to prevailing logic, the death of Jesus should have been a devastating blow for any disciples who had been claiming that he was the Messiah.
Then again, according to prevailing logic, the death of King Josiah in the late seventh century, along with Judah’s ensuing catastrophe, should have vindicated polytheists and spelled doom for monolatry, to say nothing of monotheism. But the Yahweh-alone movement had proved creative then, and so would the Jesus movement now. Judah’s Yahwists found a way to turn calamity into a symbol of God’s universal power, and Jesus’s followers found a way to turn calamity into a symbol of God’s universal love.
How did they do it? Why did they do it? In answering these questions, it helps to appreciate that this lemons-into-lemonade theological maneuver isn’t the only thing incipient Christianity has in common with incipient Judaic monotheism. In both cases, also, ensuing scriptures had a tendency to cover theologians’ tracks—to recast the past in a way that obscured the actual evolution of doctrine. The Hebrew Bible’s latter-day monotheistic authors and editors, in recounting Israel’s history, created the illusion of an indigenous Israelite monotheism by depicting gods other than Yahweh as foreign, whether they were or not. The New Testament’s authors, in recounting the life of Jesus, created the illusion that post-Crucifixion belief was basically the same as precrucifixion belief. The Christianity that evolved in the decades and centuries after Jesus’s death—the Christianity that had Crucifixion as its natural core—was made to look like a straightforward extension of what Jesus himself had said and done. And in some cases that meant twisting what Jesus had actually said and done.
This isn’t to say, in either case, that conscious dishonesty was rampant. As stories spread orally, from person to person to person, an overarching dishonesty can take shape without a conscious attempt to mislead. Imagine followers of the crucified Jesus trying to win converts—possessed by a conviction so powerful that they embellish the story here and there, yet a conviction so earnest that they believe their embellishments.
Anyway, for present purposes the honesty of the Bible’s authors isn’t what matters. Rather, the take-home lesson is that, in deciphering the Christian revolution, we have to bring to the New Testament the same perspective we brought to the “Old” Testament, the Hebrew Bible. We have to remember that biblical narratives reflect not just the times when the events recounted took place, but the times when the narrative coalesced. With this in mind we can understand how exactly the Crucifixion, an act that in theory should have thrown this would-be messiah into disgrace beyond recovery, wound up turning him into a symbol of universal love.
Certainly this took some doing. For the real Jesus—the “historical Jesus”—didn’t emphasize universal love at all. At least, that’s what a close and critical look at the scripture strongly suggests.…