Why Jesus Died

Recent historical discoveries about northern Palestine of two millennia ago reveal how radical Jesus’s message was, what risks he was asking his followers to take, and why he was arrested and crucified as an insurrectionist when he ventured south to Jerusalem, says Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

Though divided into innumerable groupings, the roughly 2 billion people who call themselves Christians hold one belief that identifies us all. We believe that God was uniquely present in the teacher/prophet Jesus from Nazareth.

In Paul’s words “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” Christians almost universally believe that Jesus was fully human and also fully divine. Put another way, Christians believe there is a Jesus of history and a theological Jesus somehow united in one person.

El Greco's depiction of Jesus driving the moneychangers from the Temple.

Through history and continuing today, Christians have been much more interested in the theological Jesus than in the Jesus of history. Churches have focused on the miracle worker who healed the sick, raised the dead, multiplied loaves and fish, and walked on water, the Jesus who died for the world’s sins, was raised on the third day, ascended into the heavens and now sits at the right hand of his Father/God.

Read the words of our hymnals, read the words of our confessions of faith and listen to typical sermons. The church’s obsession with the theological Jesus is easy to confirm.

The great neglect of Christians is the Jesus of history. Over the centuries lonely souls have attempted to give greater importance to the historical Jesus, only to find frustration and failure in their journey. Following is a brief summary of what has happened during the past century:

A monumental event occurred in 1906 when Albert Schweitzer published The Historical Quest of the Historical Jesus. Though lessons were learned, everyone including Schweitzer agreed that his effort failed to establish a workable historical Jesus.

The search for the historical Jesus was revived in the mid-1950s in the context of existential theology. But the combination of existentialism and finding the historical Jesus was a poor match. More lessons were learned, but the historical Jesus remained elusive.

We are now in the midst of the third search for the historical Jesus, which began in the mid-1980s without any stated goal of finding the Jesus of history. Rather it began with historical research about the area in northern Palestine which we call Galilee.

Social scientists have been able to reconstruct the social, political, religious, economic and symbolic world of Galilee in the first half of the First Century CE. The abundance of information that has been generated is giving interpreters of the historical Jesus a working context for the things that the Gospels say that he said and did.

The list of the historical facts about Palestine in the first half of the First Century CE is growing. Here are four examples:

–Galilee was a rural area with a history of farming that had become an advanced agrarian society. Ownership and control of land had passed from the farmer who farmed the land to wealthy aristocrats who lived in large cities removed from the farms. Those who tilled the soil had been reduced to poor day-laborers.

–Galilee was a hot bed of the Zealots, who advocated violent overthrow of every oppressor. The typical Zealot was always armed with a knife and was ready to commit violence. Zealots were regularly executed under the charge of insurrection.

–Galileans resisted the cultural changes that were taking place in the nearby large cities, Sepphoris and Tiberius, what was known as Hellinization. Galileans maintained their Jewish identity, but practiced their faith differently than the Jews in southern Palestine who tied their worship to the Jerusalem Temple. Galileans were at odds with the religious authorities in Jerusalem, too.

–The geography of Galilee lent itself to the settlement of small villages in which clan relationships were dominant. Resistance to outside cultural pressures was strong and local customs and values were maintained.

All of the four dynamics to which I have referred have been established by research that is completely outside the domain of studying the Bible. Yet these historical discoveries have powerful effects on the Bible interpreter by providing the social and political context for Jesus’s life and teachings, in particular the study of the parables that Jesus told his followers.

This third search for the historical Jesus reveals him as an advocate for justice who confronts his followers with a relentless demand for reform. Are we today ready to apply Jesus’s teachings to modern circumstances?

–Jesus taught and believed in a radical redistribution of wealth.

–Jesus was strongly identified with the poorest of the poor.

–Jesus was an insurrectionist who renounced violence as a tool of reform.

–Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and eagerly debated the application of Jewish Torah (law).

This emerging understanding of the historical Jesus also helps explain why — the first time he ventured out of his Galilean society — he was executed as an insurrectionist.

The emerging picture of the historical Jesus is not a rejection of the theological Jesus. But it does demand that we discuss and even argue both sides of the incarnation puzzle.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected]

30 comments for “Why Jesus Died

  1. ThorsteinVeblen2012
    July 5, 2012 at 16:30

    No note is made of the construction of the Great Temple which Jesus is noted for having a particular antipathy.

    Herod was helped being placed in power by the Romans. He was their man. The Great Temple was an enormous undertaking as were the various projects instigated under Herod. Herod’s legitimacy as king was dubious. The construction of the Temple was done with the cooperation of the Jewish elite.

    Nowhere have I seen any study of the cost or how the Temple and the various projects under Herod were paid for. I submit they were investments made by Rome with an expected return.

    Jesus, a Jewish commoner saw the Temple and the alliance of the Jewish elite and the Romans as against his concept of Jewish universalism. His populist message was clearly at odds with the plans of the Jewish elites and the Romans.

    In all probability there were many people like Jesus in history. His revolt would not necessarily have been unique except that it resonated. Jesus’ revolt split the ranks of monotheists first by class and then by belief in the cult of Jesus.

  2. Lategate
    July 3, 2012 at 19:47

    Jesus killed 42 children with two female bears. It’s in the OT. And yes, Christians, Jesus is in the Old Testament. Jesus is God. “In the beginning was the Word.. the Word was God” …. “I’m an the Alpha and Omega the beginning and end “…. “I an the father are one…” Need more quotes from the Bible? So Jesus was God all along.

    And he sent two bears to maul to children (Hebrew is correct… the word is “chidren”… under 13…. for making fun of a bald headed preacher…

    Jesus okay’d a dad to kill his daughter…. burn her body…drain her blood pour it on coals as they did in that day… (an aroma pleasing to Him)

    Christians…. would Jesus really do all that? And don’t get me started on Allah or Mohammad…

    • Rockytopwriter
      July 5, 2012 at 09:38

      Allah is fiction. Muhammad was a rapist. Christ was always God according to the Bible. All fact, sir.

  3. Frances in California
    June 29, 2012 at 14:16

    The important question remains: Whom does the Grail serve?

  4. robert landbeck
    June 28, 2012 at 13:24

    The ’emerging picture’ of the historical Jesus is a COMPLETE rejection of the theological Jesus and the last two thousand years of ‘faith’ traditions that bear his name! History is even now being re-written. For what science and religion, not to mention the rest of us, thought impossible has happened. History has its first literal, testable and fully demonstrable proof for faith.

    The first wholly new interpretation for two thousand years of the moral teachings of Christ is published on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new teaching is predicated upon a precise, predefined and predictable experience and called ‘the first Resurrection’ in the sense that the Resurrection of Jesus was intended to demonstrate Gods’ willingness to real Himself and intervene directly into the natural world for those obedient to His will, paving the way for access, by faith, to the power of divine transcendence and ultimate proof!

    Thus ‘faith’ becomes an act of trust in action, to search and discover this direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power that confirms divine will, law, command and covenant, which at the same time, realigns our moral compass with the Divine, “correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries.” So like it or no, a new religious teaching, testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria of evidence based causation and definitive proof now exists. Nothing short of an intellectual, moral and religious revolution is getting under way. To test or not to test, that is the question? More info at http://www.energon.org.uk,

    • F. G. Sanford
      June 28, 2012 at 15:56

      What a bunch of meaningless drivel. In order to have evidence-based anything, you need empirical evidence. There isn’t any. One of the commentators above posits the simplistic excuse that contemporary historical accounts of Jesus were deliberately destroyed by the Crusaders and the Catholic Church. That’s essentially the same excuse UFO lunatics and con-artists use for lack of evidence: the government is hiding it from us, but it really is there, if only they would consent to “full disclosure”. Mountains of verbal diarrhea are no substitute for evidence. This kind of thinking is based on nothing more than the old adage, “You lie, and I’ll swear to it”. Lie after lie after lie, and all it serves is a way to justify the parasitic existence of a clergy that exploits the gullibility of people kept defenseless by lack of enlightenment. Shame on you for having the gall to mention “history” and “science” in the same bucket of drivel as the rest of this comment.

  5. delia ruhe
    June 27, 2012 at 19:56

    Even if the figure known as Jesus is a composite of several outspoken critics of the regime who ended up crucified, what does that change for Christians?

    • June 28, 2012 at 00:56

      Good question Delia, because Christianity was created by the flim flam artist, Paul, decades before Jesus was created by the gospels. It is all a grim fairy tale.


  6. textynn
    June 27, 2012 at 18:17

    When Jesus said he died for our sins, he meant he died for the sins of those who served the dominating elite against the masses and did not follow his movement. Had he not continued his movement to save his own rear end, he would not have been executed. He knew this.

    All but his family fled the scene of the crucifixion. The followers knew they too would die for the sins of those following self service in the taught and enforced model/culture/society of the oppressive elite. The apostles chose not to die for the ignorant masses that could have rallied for their own redemption and rebirth. Those that know not what they do.

    Jesus served his movement to the bitter end, for the world he knew was the creator’s vision. He died for the vision that mankind must know is worth risking and dying for. Not because of some horse crap about people being born bad and sinful in which the creator demanded the ultimate sacrifice to forgive.

    The dominating elite, demanded that all serve them and that each person was a peon and not deserving of sovereignty or those things needed to secure sovereignty because of xyz, (having no wealth, not having special skills that the elite monopolized, debt, a period of illness, born to wealth, etc. the usual.)

    The followers that would be saved were those that realized the rights of ALL people and joined him in his fight against the powerful demanding to amass wealth by way of demoting human beings to chattel for proiit.

    The Catholic Church devised by the Roman elite who had executed Jesus publicly and held his death moment present in the eyes of the peasant to this very day in the form of the crucifix is another scam by elites to promote elitism and the societal model of slavery validation which was done formally by way of Paul/Saul’s false vision. At some point, early on, they realized they created a martyr and built a false narrative around the entire event and claimed his followers with lies propaganda and disinfo.

  7. June 27, 2012 at 17:19

    Hallelujah, the majority of these responses all seem to agree that there was no historical Jehoshua bar Joseph. And Howard Bess’ piece above adds nothing to this question. All one has to do is read the last page of Albert Shweitzer’s famous “Quest.” The quest came up empty. Someday maybe even the American public will figure this out, but that would take a miracle.


  8. June 27, 2012 at 13:03

    Actually, I’ve found one of the BEST sources in tracing the search for historical Jesus and he volution of early christianity to be Simcha Jacobovici, the Naked Archaeologist. In a 3-part series on his program called, “What ever Happened to the JC Bunch?”, he interviews noted Biblical archaeologists and posits the thesis that the Essenes of the Dead Sea Scrolls were actually the Jewish followers of Jesus’ brother James. He has also found compelling evidence among the scrolls supporting his thesis as well as evidence from digs near Capernaum that Christianity was originally an offshoot sect of Judaism that was suppressed by both the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem and the Romans. He further posits that the Apostle Paul was, in reality, a Roman Spy who physically attacked James on the Temple Mount and was responsible for the transformation of Christianity into the form and religion we know today.

    • textynn
      June 27, 2012 at 19:55

      Jesus was a Jew. Naturally Christianity is an off shoot of Judaism. Jesus and his movement was condemned by both Judaism and later those “Christians” that falsely claimed his movement and condemned those that maintained the actual Christ teachings which forbade slavery, misogyny, and any exploitation of any of God’s children. This position sorely affected the Status Quo of the elites and law by royalty, and it ended in the ultimate tragedy.

      Jesus and Mary Madelene were married and taught the equality of women and the spiritual benefits of the Sacred Union and the incorporation of the Divine Feminine whose stories and teachings are also not in service to the elite control systems, specifically the use of people as cattle aka slavery, war, and wealth amassing at the cost of the vulnerable.

  9. Herbert A. Davis, Jr.
    June 27, 2012 at 10:56

    Pretty difficult to review the evidence or lack thereof and come to a conclusion that doesn’t involve acceptance of superstition.

    This site might want to develope a policy that identifies categories …at least three, fact, fiction, opinion. I’d avoid the “fiction” designated as a waste of time!

    • textynn
      June 27, 2012 at 19:32

      Whether you believe in Christ or not is immaterial for the most part. Do you believe that there is a movement affected by the idea of Christ? Do you believe that Christ is a model of which million claim to aspire?

      Maybe there is no Santa Claus, yet the gifts appear.

      • Herbert A. Davis, Jr.
        June 28, 2012 at 12:58

        Ther are UFO fanatics and White Aryan movements and I wouldn’t waste my time on them either…I did read about Bible(s),Joseph Smith, and Mohammed etc and came to a conclusion…either all are correct or all are manisfestations of a need some humans have had for a very long time. I do fully support your right to believe.

  10. Revo
    June 26, 2012 at 23:19

    Years ago, I heard on BBC radio a churchman said that jesus was neither divine nor savior; he was a prophet.

  11. F. G. Sanford
    June 26, 2012 at 23:10

    Uh…wait a second. The new testament was originally written in Koine, or common Greek, also called “Alexandrian dialect”, “common Attic” or “Hellenistic Greek”. It was the universal dialect of the Greek language spoken throughout post-Classical antiquity. So…where did this “resistance to Hellenism” idea come from? There is simply no archaeological evidence for Jesus whatsoever. But there are plenty of variations on the “born of a virgin, crucified, rose from the dead three days later” myth, the obvious source of the Jesus myth. If Jesus existed, that’s the language he surely spoke. If there is anything “good” about Jesus, it is the enlightened point of view his inventors borrowed from Hellenism.

    • June 27, 2012 at 09:43

      You my friend need to go back to library .

      • F. G. Sanford
        June 27, 2012 at 10:48

        You, my friend, have certainly never been there. But if you go, there’s an easy read you might try to tackle: “The Heritage of Hellenism”. Of course, like most subscribers to religious mythology, your mind is no doubt already made up. Your response is precisely what I would expect from someone who believes in the sanctity of an old pervert in Rome who wears a dress and a dunce cap.

    • Salamander
      June 27, 2012 at 11:39

      The New Testament was “written” at least a century after the events recited in it. People in the Galilee of Jesus’ time were speaking Aramaic. Jesus himself was probably reading and praying in Hebrew.

      • F. G. Sanford
        June 27, 2012 at 13:48

        Well, Aramaic concurs with Mel Gibson’s version; historians would probably differ. But either way, if your “century after the events” is correct, which I have no reason to doubt, that mitigates for the idea that the whole thing was made up, doesn’t it? After all, if it was true, there were plenty of contemporary historians, and they probably would have noticed a guy who could walk on water, raise the dead, cure the blind, and feed five thousand people with a loaf of bread and a fish. But none of them did, and the Romans kept very good records. Common sense goes too easily out the window just because something supposedly happened two thousand years ago. If someone made those claims today, they’d find themselves under lock and key. Interesting thought–maybe he has come back, and they have him locked up at Area 51 with the aliens.

        • textynn
          June 27, 2012 at 19:28

          You have forgotten the Crusades 1100 to 1600. The Catholic Church spent untold fortunes and five centuries to obliterate the histories that would reveal the truth of Christ’s movements, teachings, and main message.

          Anyone practicing any recognition of Christ of which the CC did not approve found their bodies, culture, and history in the grave. In Catholicism the word “grave” and “Hell” are the same thing in most of the teachings. And that is no coincidence.

  12. June 26, 2012 at 21:23

    On what grounds are we to assume tnat ‘Hillary’ exists?

    • Frances in California
      June 29, 2012 at 14:10

      Uh . . . “I type therefore I am”?

  13. Hillary
    June 26, 2012 at 18:09

    All this about someone who never existed ?

    The rumors continue to blind the ignorant, depraved and innocent from reality.

    • Deron
      June 26, 2012 at 18:41

      Reality is what? I’m not making this statement just to go against what you are saying, I just want to know your opinion. Please give me sources.

      • d4l3d
        June 26, 2012 at 20:54

        The burden of proof for the historcal Jesus lies on the believer, not the other way ’round. After all these centuries past, there are no affirmations (I guess they could be characterized as rumors?) left standing.

        • Gregory L Kruse
          June 27, 2012 at 10:18

          Even if it could be proven that a person by the name of Joshua did exist in Galilee, and was executed in Jerusalem for no crime other than opposition to the regime, that is all he could be proven to be. The theo-mythical view of Jesus would not benefit from such proof because there is no proof, and there never will be. Anybody who thinks they know what “reality” is, is more confused than they know. God-culture and myth-making are part of the human coping mechanism, and those who think we can do better without them haven’t had any experience with hell.

          • textynn
            June 27, 2012 at 19:14

            Your words are a bias towards a belief system that no regular human could embody a Christ like journey and be bestowed by fellow humanity an appreciation level of that of godlike recognition.

            As far as Jesus’s story goes, it is laden with all kinds of overlays of other gods and belief systems from abundant origins. Much of this was done on purpose to usurp other religions, along with true Christianity for the purpose and use by Roman elites that created the Catholic Church.

            The forming of this “church” was a lie to steal Jesus’ movement to free the masses from the service of Roman elite slavery models to something that did the opposite and returned the status Quo.

            To do this, they controlled the message, obliterated historical records on a grand scale aka the Crusades, rewrote history to continue the control for the benefit of the few, and spent exorbitant time and effort to twist Christian teaching to the service of an elite through the usual well known models..divine right, wealthy bloodlines, monopolies on resources, control of land etc.

    • Larry
      June 29, 2012 at 02:02

      Right, there’s very little way modern believers can wrap their heads around historical Jesus or that the whole 2000-year-old morality play is creative storytelling and successful mythmaking writ huge. Besides, outside of the New Testament, which is at most a serial blind-men-describing-an-elephant narrative, there is no factual reference to an historical Jesus. For instance, in one popular though unjustified reference believers point to, Josephus never actually saw nor knew this Jesus, and wasn’t even born until 37 A.D./C.E. There’s much more, but…good night.

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