Why did Jesus die?

Here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago, and which I’ve touched up slightly. In the lead up to Easter, I hope you find it informative and thought provoking.


I really enjoy the “rock opera” Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.¹ Despite its somewhat apocryphal take on the events leading up to Jesus’ death, one of the things it tries to do is explore the reasons why Jesus, about whom there was so much excitement, ended up dead on a Roman cross. In the climactic title song, Judas asks of Jesus,

Did you mean to die like that — was that a mistake?
Or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?

There are a numbers of ways we could answer the question “Why did Jesus die?” On the historical level, we can say that Jesus was caught between the crunching gears of apocalyptic messianic expectation, Jewish temple politics, and Roman imperial intrigue. On the theological level, there is so much more to say.

On the Sunday before his death, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey to the frenzied cheers of his followers. It was a provocative messianic stunt, aimed at fulfilling the image of the returning Davidic King in Zechariah 9.9. And his followers were not blind to its significance. Their cry of ‘Hosanna in the highest!’ was not an exclamation of praise, the way it is often used today. Rather, it was a slogan. ‘Hosanna’ means ‘To the rescue!’ ‘In the highest’ does not refer to people’s praise reaching the highest heaven, but rather an urging of Jesus to reach for the highest echelons of power in his rescue of Israel. Here was the Davidic messiah coming to his royal capital to overthrow the current order, free his people, and establish the new Kingdom of God.

The following day, in a brash act prefiguring the end of the old order, Jesus marched into the temple complex and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and opened the pens holding sacrificial animals for sale. A small riot seems to have ensued. By doing this symbolic act, Jesus was clearly stating that he believed the temple and the authorities that ran it were no longer in favour with God. Time was rapidly running out — the time of judgement and the dawn of a new era were now imminent. Jesus was, in other words, playing the part of an apocalyptic prophet. And by claiming the right to bring the temple down and rebuild it, he was making a clear claim to be the rightful Davidic king of Israel—the son of David who builds the temple and establishes a permanent kingdom (cf. 2 Sam 7:11–13).

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Visualisation of the Jerusalem Temple. Credit: Courtesy of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation

To the Jewish authorities, for whom the temple was their institutional power base at the heart of Jewish identity, Jesus was dangerous. For the remainder of the week, they worked to arrest Jesus. After trying unsuccessfully to discredit him publicly, and fearing the incendiary riot that a public arrest would spark, they managed to arrest him on the sly by bribing Judas Iscariot, a member of Jesus’ inner circle—one of his twelve commissioners (i.e. ‘apostles’) responsible for the dissemination of Jesus’ claims and for gathering people around him. The arrest occurred at night, as Jesus and his other eleven commissioners were trapped in an olive grove in the Kidron Valley, just outside Jerusalem’s walls. Jesus gave himself up to his captors, and successfully pleaded for the release of his followers, who then abandoned him.

Jesus was taken under arrest, questioned and tried overnight. In fact, it was probably an illegal trial, since it was held during the midnight hours within the houses of former High Priest, Annas, and his son-in-law, the incumbent High Priest, Caiaphas. It seems that they tried to pin the charge of treason on Jesus by implicating him for threats against the temple, the institution that stood at the heart of Jewish identity and piety. This would be akin to charging someone today with a plot to blow up the White House. Given events earlier in the week, one would have thought it would be easy to implicate Jesus. However, the Gospels tell us that the witnesses brought forward could not agree, and therefore Jesus could not definitively be found guilty.

However, the High Priest, Caiaphas, used another strategy. He asked Jesus if he was the Son of God. In asking this, Caiaphas was probably not asking Jesus whether he believed he was the second person on the Trinity. Rather, he was asking Jesus whether he believed himself to be the messiah — the son of David who was to sit eternally on the throne of Israel, for the son of David in the Hebrew Bible was also seen as the ‘son of God’ (2 Samuel 7.14). Jesus’ response implied that he did believe this. But even more than this, Jesus appealed to the image of the Son of Man in Daniel 7 — an apocalyptic image of God’s chosen one who would bring about the end of the world order and establish God’s eternal kingdom. In the eyes of the authorities, this was an admission of revolutionary intent. Jesus was found guilty, given a beating, and sentenced to death.

Since the Jewish authorities at this time were unable to exact the death penalty (it had been revoked by Rome a few years earlier), Jesus was hurried off to the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. If they wanted Jesus dead, they would have to ask Pilate to enact the death penalty.

Politically, Pilate was fighting battles on two fronts. On the one hand, Pilate was probably a protégé of Aelius Sejanus, who had been running the Roman Empire for a few years while the emperor, Tiberius Caesar, enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle on the Italian isle of Capri. However, in October, AD 31, Sejanus was executed for conspiracy against the emperor. Anyone connected to him was now also under suspicion. Pilate, therefore, would have had to watch his steps very closely to demonstrate unambiguously that he was loyal to Tiberius Caesar. On the other hand, though, Pilate had to maintain face and an air of authority over those he governed. In the years before Sejanus’ ignominious death, Pilate had thrown his weight around in various displays of power. Amongst those he needed to keep in check were the Jewish temple authorities. One of the ways he had managed to do so was to plunder the temple’s treasury for public works, and to keep the High Priest’s ceremonial garments under lock and key in the Antonia Fortress. These measures were belittling to the Jewish temple authorities and told them in no uncertain terms who was boss.

So, on the morning of Friday, April 3rd, AD 33, the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to Pilate to seek the death penalty for him. Normally, it would appear that the Jewish authorities were in the position of grovelling subordinates, and thus for Pilate to agree to the death penalty would simply be a show of his own authority. However, Pilate also had to contend for his own reputation now that he was in the spotlight after Sejanus’ death. He could not afford to show any weakness before those he governed, and acquiescing to their request could now be interpreted as just such a weakness. And yet, he could not be seen to be letting a potential revolutionary go free either. That would endanger his standing with the emperor. Accordingly, Pilate attempted to hand the decision over to someone else — to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, who was in Jerusalem at the time. However, the move backfired. Jesus was returned to Pilate, who now had to make a decision. Not wishing to imply that he was vulnerable or susceptible to weakness, Pilate himself questioned Jesus, flogged him in a display of Rome’s discipline, and was then on the verge of releasing him. Pilate seems to have been convinced that Jesus was harmless. Jesus had been separated from his followers, was unarmed, and did not really hold any human power. By thus overriding the request of the Jewish leaders for the death penalty, Pilate was stamping his authority over them.

However, Caiaphas and his comrades were not stupid. They now held the trump card. John’s Gospel tells us that the Jewish authorities said to Pilate, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (19.12). They were implying that if he were to release Jesus, Pilate would be letting an insurrectionist go free to destabilise one of the imperial provinces that Tiberius governed directly (as opposed to consular provinces, which were governed via the Roman Senate). This would implicate Pilate as a traitor to the emperor. To put it another way, the Jewish authorities were asking Pilate, “Whose skin do you want to save: this nuisance from Nazareth’s, or your own?”

Checkmate!

Pilate summarily ordered the execution of Jesus. He was led outside the city walls of Jerusalem with two other condemned criminals, stripped naked, and barbarically nailed to a cross where he was left to die a searingly painful death. The charge against him? Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews.

On the surface of things, it seems that Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time — a victim of circumstance, crushed by political machinations that were far bigger than he could humanly control. Some have pointed to the apocalyptic outlook that Jesus had, in wanting to draw the old order to a close and establish a new order, concluding that it was idealistic, unreal, and fraught with danger — that his beliefs and motivations just got him in too deep. Indeed, one can understand why most of his followers abandoned him and became so disillusioned by his death. He was an apparent failure. All the expectation surrounding him had come to nought, and like so many others before him, he fell foul of theauthorities and lost his life because of it.

But history also tells us something else. It tell us that not long after these events, Jesus’ followers—his eleven remaining ‘commissioners’ and other hangers-on—reassembled and began boldly proclaiming that on the Sunday after his death Jesus had emerged from his tomb alive again. And despite attempts to silence them by the very same authorities who had arrested Jesus and ensured his execution, they continued to proclaim the resurrection of their master. He had not been a failure. He had been a fulfiller. He had indeed brought the old era to an end and inaugurated a new one, but had done so in a way that no one had anticipated: through his death. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that on one occasion, after being reprimanded by the Jewish authorities, Jesus’ followers prayed to God affirming, “In this city, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, conspired against your holy servant, Jesus, whom you anointed, doing what your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4.27–28). This had been no accident of history. In fact, this was what God had been mobilising all of history towards: the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a moment of supreme fulfilment. This was the central moment of human history that held significance for every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or ever will live. The final bell on the old order, characterised by sin, death, hate, hostility, and human failure, had sounded. The new era of forgiveness, life, love, peace, and reconciliation was now dawning. Jesus had not only met expectations, he far exceeded them.

So why did Jesus die? There are so many things we could say to unpack the significance of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The Apostle Paul puts it succinctly well, though, in Romans 4.25: “He was handed over for our transgressions, and raised for the sake of our justification.” And our response? Paul again captures it well in Galatians 2.20: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Related: Why the Tearing of the Temple Curtain is a Bad Thing


¹ This is not an endorsement of the ‘theology’ of Jesus Christ Superstar (in fact, I have major problems with some of it). It’s merely an acknowledgement that I enjoy it as a musical and thematic experience, just as someone might really enjoy a movie without endorsing all the action that occurs within it. Appreciation does not necessitate agreement.

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There is a reason this terrible Friday is called ‘Good’

shadowofcrossOn the night Jesus was betrayed, he had dinner with his friends. But they would all abandon him later that night.

That same night, Jesus was trapped by his enemies, who wanted him dead. Having nowhere on earth to turn, he turned to God the Father. God didn’t come to his rescue.

Within hours, Jesus was violently hustled out of Jerusalem. He was nailed by the limbs to a cross—transfixed to a gibbet by hate and rejection.

And yet, as the shadow of death suffocated his life, he prayed for the forgiveness of those who harmed him.

And he was heard.

In the depths of human despair, when God seemed to be nowhere, yet God was acting to save. When screams of hate and betrayal seemed to drown out cries for love and reconciliation, God was listening. When God seemed callously absent, he was there in the One he had sent. At the moment Jesus seemed to have failed, he triumphed over all.

Things are not always as they seem.

There is a reason to celebrate the death of this man. There is a reason this terrible Friday is called ‘Good’.

‘Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.’

Christianity turns 1980 years old

On the morning of 5 April, AD 33, women carrying spices to anoint the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth discovered that the tomb in which the corpse had been put was empty. One of them, Mary Magdalene, instantly concludes that the body had been stolen. Within hours, however, the story that Jesus had risen from death and walked out of the tomb alive was circulating among his disciples.

How is it that this story became Christianity’s ‘official’ explanation for what happened to Jesus?

The rise of Christianity is predicated on the claim of Jesus’ resurrection. If the resurrection were merely a fictional or mythological portrayal of ultimate vindication, then Jesus’ remains would still have occupied the tomb in which he’d been laid. If this were so, then the claim of resurrection could have been easily countered factually, for people could have gone to the tomb, opened it up, and seen the body. It would have been easy to produce the body, then, and prove the production of the myth. However, this never happened. Nor did anyone claim that the resurrection was actually a mythical claim. The resurrection claim seems to have been understood as actual—that is, the claim was that Jesus physically walked out of his tomb. And there appears to have been no evidence available to counter this claim. If there were, Christianity never would have gotten off the ground 1980 years ago. But it did!

So what was going on?

We’re left with a few possible scenarios. Possibly there was a hoax going on—the most successful in history, and for which the instigators were willing to be martyred. It just might be that Jesus’ followers, who had all abandoned him to save their own skins, now tried to save their own reputations by rehabilitating the reputation of their fallen master. In this way, they could claim to have followed the ultimate winner and not have been stigmatised for their association with him. But if so, this failed miserably, for they were stigmatised anyway, and they eventually did lose their own skins. So if the resurrection were a hoax, then we have to give the disciples full marks for commitment to fraud that backfired on them anyway, and superb pride at not being willing to admit it.

Alternatively, grave robbers took Jesus’ body. However, this would be a very odd thing, since bodies themselves were not valuable to grave robbers. Bodies rotted! It was, rather, the spices, linen and other trinkets buried with a body that were valuable. But there were no spices applied to Jesus’ corpse when he was buried. The Sabbath evening was approaching when Jesus’ corpse was removed from his cross, and he was hastily buried without the unguents to mask the smell of decomposition. The women who came to the tomb on the morning after the Sabbath were, in fact, coming to add those unguents to the body when they found the tomb empty. And the linen was found in the tomb. In other words, the only thing of value in the tomb, the linen, was not taken. Despite this oddity, the first explanation entertained by Mary Magdalene, one of those women, was that Jesus’ body had been taken. And yet, she changed her story. Why?

Again, we may have a hoax, in which case Mary certainly pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, or managed to convince others to join her hoax. But this then raises the issues I mention above about the unlikelihood of hoax. Alternatively, perhaps someone was playing a cruel trick on the disciples by removing the body and giving the impression of a resurrection. Or perhaps Mary just ended up projecting wishful thinking into a grand story of resurrection. In either of those two cases, we have to conclude that they led to mass hallucination of groups of people all seeing the exact same hallucination of Jesus alive again, and all at the same time.

Alternatively, Jesus’ followers, most of whom had abandoned him before his execution, actually saw him alive again. Once more, they were all seeing the same thing. If there were only independent ‘sightings’ of a risen Jesus, then the evidence is weakened considerably. There would be little corroboration between the various sightings. But there were groups of people all seeing the same thing, including apparently about 500 people at one time. The empirical evidence pushed these people to conclude that, despite all expectations, this guy had actually come back to life. They all knew what ‘dead’ meant, and some of them had seen and touched Jesus’ dead body. But the empirical evidence that confronted them on 5 April, AD 33, and for weeks thereafter, forced them to conclude that Jesus had risen.

Now whether Jesus did come to life or not is a big call, and I can understand people’s doubt over that. However, the best explanation for the rise of Christianity is that Jesus’ followers honestly believed that he had risen from the dead. And there was no evidence available to counter that claim. His tomb was empty. Either the disciples got away with a huge call, or Jesus did walk out of his tomb alive.

Today, 5 April 2013, Christianity turns 1980 years old.

Why the tearing of the temple curtain is a bad thing

It’s Easter! At this time of the year, Christians the world over commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Son of God. The ‘greatest story ever told’ gets retold. On Facebook, Christians post snippets from the Gospels, or lines from songs celebrating the significance of the story (like I have!). But there’s one particular part of the Gospel story that I think has been misunderstood. It’s the tearing of the temple curtain.

The Synoptic Gospels all tell the story that at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain in the temple was torn in two (Matt 27.51; Mark 15.38; Luke 23.45). This is a reference to the large, heavy curtain that cordoned off the Holy of Holies within the Jerusalem temple’s inner sanctum. The presence of God was said to occupy the Holy of Holies, which was only accessed once a year on the Day of Atonement by the High Priest. Every other day of the year, the Holy of Holies remained off limits to everyone. Yet the Evangelists tell us that without any human agency, this curtain that marked the divide between the human and divine worlds was ripped apart at the moment Jesus breathed his last. This is how Matthew relates it:

Jesus shouted again with a loud voice and gave up His spirit. Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was split in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked and the rocks were split. (Matt 27.50–51)

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So what’s the significance of the temple curtain being ripped?

Most Christians will say that it’s the moment that free access to God was won. The curtain, which hitherto had kept God hidden from people and at a distance, was now dramatically rendered obsolete. Jesus’ death had granted access to God for all. This strange event, therefore, is seen as a good thing.

This particular interpretation probably comes under the influence of a few New Testament texts. Probably the most prominent of these is from the letter to the Hebrews:

Therefore, brothers, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way he has opened for us through the curtain (that is, his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. (Hebrews 10.19–22)

The author here, writing from within the Jewish framework that held the temple to be the heart of Jewish life, informs his readers that through the work of Christ the entire temple cult had been fulfilled. ImageHe argues that Jesus did everything the temple was designed to do, namely provide atonement for sin and access to God, and he had done so once and for all. Jesus was the ultimate High Priest who had blazed a trail to God, allowing his followers to be cleansed and have free and permanent fellowship with the one true holy God. As such there was no need for ethnically Jewish Christians to return to the old temple service, or even to desire the rebuilding of the temple (I understand the pretext for the author writing the letter was to articulate a specifically Christian response to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70).

It’s this theologically potent message that we tend to read back into the moment of Jesus’ death. It almost seems like the writer to the Hebrews had this particular moment of the Gospel story in mind in framing the excerpt quoted above.

However, as important as this point was to the writer of the Hebrews, I do not believe he was saying that this was the significance of the tearing of the temple curtain. For a start, note that he equates the temple curtain with Jesus’ flesh, not with the actual curtain that used to hang in the temple. The writer to the Hebrews sees Jesus himself as the one who joins the divine and human worlds, and interprets the significance of his work as akin to one going through the temple curtain, as the High Priest used to do. In other words, the temple curtain provides the writer with an image he can use to talk about the import of Jesus’ work in fulfilling what the temple stood for. In this way, he uses the temple curtain metaphorically and positively.

The Gospel writers, on the other hand, were making a rather different point. I believe that they were specifically portraying the tearing of the temple curtain as an ominous sign—a prefiguring of judgement. Let me explain.

All three Synoptic Gospels portray the last week of Jesus’ life as prophetically charged. Jesus rides into Jerusalem with messianic portent, but then proceeds to declare judgement on the nation of Israel and the temple. He causes a minor riot on the temple grounds when he overturns the stalls of the money changers. In Matthew’s Gospel, as he leaves the temple, Jesus utters these words:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will never see me again until you say, ‘He who comes in the name of the Lord is the blessed One’!” (Matt 23.37–39)

Jesus then proceeds to tell his disciples that not one stone of the temple will be left on another. In addition to these events, Jesus also curses a fig tree, which then withers and dies. The gesture is symbolic of the judgement to come upon Israel. The fact that it withers has a sense of permanence: Israel has rejected Jesus, the Chosen One sent from God, and as a result the covenant nation is being brought to an end.

Matters come to a head when Jesus is arrested and the nation’s authorities succeed in having him crucified. Their rejection of God’s Chosen One—the messiah of Israel—is complete. And so, as Jesus dies, the curtain is torn asunder to confirm the judgement that Jesus has pronounced upon the nation. Note also the roughness of the action—it is a ripping, rather than a parting, raising, or drawing aside. It is suggestive of violent destruction. In all of this, God validates that Jesus was indeed the messiah, and also expresses his displeasure at his covenant nation for their rejection of him.

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The scene is somewhat reminiscent of Ezekiel 8–11, where God takes Ezekiel on a visionary tour of the temple to show him the multiple abominations that have forced him to abandon the temple to destruction by the Babylonians. The Synoptic writers depict Jesus’ death as a similar abomination that leads to the downfall of the nation and the loss of its temple—something that would ultimately occur a generation later in AD 70 when the Romans put down the Jewish Revolt and razed the temple to the ground. One might say that the tearing of the temple curtain is how the Gospel writers imply that God was bringing down the curtain on old Israel and its temple. It was 586 BC all over again!

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Detail of the Arch of Titus in Rome commemorating the Romans’ destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70. The relief depicts Romans parading paraphernalia from the temple in triumphal procession.

ImageThis feature of the Gospel storyline, therefore, is not seen as a positive thing. It is symbolic of the end of old Israel, and of the temple destruction in AD 70. However, the Evangelists are also keen to say that there is hope beyond this destruction. The community that Jesus gathers around himself is the beginning of a new people of God—one that will survive AD 70. And Jesus is subsequently raised to life again, heralding a new era that will see Gentiles take their place alongside Jews as full members of the new people of God. Indeed, it is those who represent the destroyers of the temple—Roman soldiers—who are the first to express a confession acknowledging Jesus:

When the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they were terrified and said, “This man really was God’s Son!” (Matt 27.54)

Thus, the Gospels depict the curtain tearing as a moment of judgement. Yet, they are still very much in the spirit of what the writer to the Hebrews was saying to his readers. The new community of Jesus’ followers are in no need of a temple building. All they need is Jesus himself.

What this little examination shows us is that while we need to get our theology from the whole canon of Scripture, we also need to let each book speak on its own first. Just because the writer to the Hebrews was making a particular point with the imagery of the temple curtain does not mean that Matthew was making that same point in his Gospel when he talked about the temple curtain. We mustn’t cross pollenate one author with another. The writer to the Hebrews was sounding one note, and the Gospel writers another which, although it was a different note, was still in ‘theological harmony’. Just like the destruction and exile of Judah in 586 BC was a bad thing, but something which also led to new theological insight, so also the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus’ death was indicative of coming destruction, yet also lead eventually to new theological insight.

So when the Gospel stories are read again this Easter time, we should pause when hearing that the curtain in the temple was torn and realise that for the Gospel writers it was a confirmation of judgement for the rejection of Jesus.