Why Did Jesus Die?

Posted to Surefish 29th April 2004 at 21:32

A theological answer of why Jesus died is separate from an historical answer. The historical answer is that the authorities, particularly the Roman ones, found him a disturbing nuisance and killed him along with many others using a fearful method. The place of Pilate in asking if the body was dead is a very likely invention and not important and the centurion declaring death is shown as a sympathiser.
Or at least we think Jesus died. Mark (who wrote it first), Matthew, Luke says it took nine hours for Jesus to die, and this is linked with Elijah and in Matthew an immediate start of the general resurrection, and Joseph is looking for the Kingdom of God. John links it specifically to some scriptures about not breaking bones and piercing (but they all link it backwards).
The nine hours is interesting, because it is a remarkably short time to die from a crucifixion, which is a form of painful suffocation. People have survived crucifixion: they did not because they were left there for some three days and more. This gives rise to the view that Jesus resuscitated thanks to the care of Joseph and healing herbs. It also helps give rise to the Muslim view that God raised Jesus without Jesus dying.
The evidence for him dying is the way that the appearances are the earliest tradition and the tomb a later tradition and likely invented (the body when taken down would have been dumped in a common pit, becoming indistinguishable from other bodies quite quickly); and the evidence is also in the theological way that Jesus is not recognised until a point is understood and when a point is understood he vanishes. These are literary devices about "seeing" something, as in "Oh I see it now." The written about post death Jesus both eats and can appear and disappear. What we are looking at are a lot of literary devices making theological points, whereas if Jesus the recovered man had met the disciples before slipping over the Roman border to look for the other tribes of Israel, then the accounts would have been more straightforward. They are not, and so either we are dealing with embellishment after appearances/ bereavement to psychological dramas in a condition of huge expectations. Of course we could be dealing with a transformed body retaining a personality. Paul refers to a spiritual body (which is likened by some to the same logical nonsense as a square circle) but it sounds like he is trying to equate the impact on him, a tradition of appearances and the awkward language of the general resurrection of bodies of which Jesus would be the first. Indeed Paul is forced to explain why ordinary people keep dying when everyone is so expectant of the end.
So it looks like Jesus did die. Then the theology of it becomes that of Deutero-Isaiah (the suffering servant) and resurrection. There is variation here between the Jerusalem church and Paul.
Now these views are very strange to people in our culture. We do not believe that people get ill, least of all die, because of sin. That is where the theology of Jesus dying so others do not have to die comes from. We now have biology to explain death as well as life. We also know that if the brain dies, it cannot be revived, and bodily decay is one way. The dead do not rise. This was a particular belief of the Pharisees developing and powerful in the stresses of the Inter-Testament period. Anyone watching Time Team, for example (this is not just a humorous point) know that the bodies they piece together are not going to rise. Christians have added, in some contradiction, views about spirit and heaven using the Greek world view.
In my view there is a lot going for the suffering servant view in a tragic sense, the sense that by giving way more can often be achieved. However, and this is important, theologians often argue against Jesus seeking his own martyrdom. The ultimate price, or any price, has to come about only with little alternative. This tragedy can be linked to Jesus turning morality and authority upside down, and being seen as a disturbance, just as today some quite harmless and peaceful dissident groups seem to cause many political authorities so much in the way of a headache that they become violent and repressive. We see this in Burma now, with the Dalai Lama, with Gandhi. It was similar with Jesus - they are all suffering servants.
It is not really about why Jesus died, but is about the meaning attached. The resurrection afterwards is about a community definition of faith, expectation and working out an inclusive basis for faith beyind the disputes in the synagogues with their Christians. I do not hold to any supernatural activity being actual: there is plenty to think about without having fantastical cogwheels.
Our culture is either capable of giving explanation that is worthwhile or it is not; and we should not be ruled by another culture on this, especially one that cannot produce meaningful causal chains any more with things like demons and devils and sins inhabiting bodies or first humans when there were once species of humans. Things do not work in the way that they thought. The world will end when the sun expands, the universe will end when everything is too distant from everything else, and still expanding, and when forms of active life can no longer develop. There will be no escape then.
The theological meaning then can be made cosmic, but I would argue the story to be tied into our narratives of understanding.

5th May 2004 at 01:36

The above post, I'm afraid, shows a combination of historical reservation (at least some of them did living at the time) with theological grand sweeps which is in the realm of mythology that everyone benefits. Consistently, as a theology, everyone is to blame (as in sin) and everyone is to benefit and keep receiving this forgivenness. Or historically some people killed him at the time for which the consequence is that he died, assuming he did, and some ten years later expectant communities expect his return (according to documents) and over time modified their stance.

Posted to Surefish 14th May 2004 at 03:46

I can assure Jason (although I do not have to) that I do not waste my time in churches whether at Easter or any other part of the year. I do not think his interpretation of the Easter story is the only one. I am quite capable of interpreting it myself. It means, as does much in the way of Judaeo-Christian thought, that in order to see the other side we have to pass through, this can involve suffering and not avoidance. Christ, we note, is risen according to the scriptures, not according to any one approved interpretation of them. I am quite happy in my spirituality and find a church that suits very enriching, thank you.


Adrian Worsfold