The Two Views of Jesus’s Murder

Christianity has two conflicting views of Jesus’s Crucifixion, that God sacrificed his Son to atone for mankind’s sins, or that Jesus demanded economic and political justice for the poor and was killed by Jerusalem’s power structure. The two interpretations lead in very different directions, as Rev. Howard Bess explains.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

Christian Holy Week begins with Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) and concludes with his celebrated resurrection (Easter). But what happened during that fateful week and the meaning of the Crucifixion remain a central focus of Christian debate.

Was Jesus killed by the Romans as an insurrectionist because he favored political and economic justice for the poor and acted out his outrage by overturning money-changing tables at the Temple? Or did he die as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of mankind in the eyes of God?

Rob Bell’s recent book, Love Wins, has brought the subject into sharp focus as a challenge to the traditional Christian theology that Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin and that his sacrificial death was somehow required by a just God so the sins of the world could be forgiven.

For many Christians this understanding of this sacrificial death of Jesus presents a stern, demanding God (arranging the brutal torture and murder of his only begotten son) rather than a loving heavenly father who embraces all of humankind out of boundless love.

Bell argues that the two images of God (a demanding tyrant God and a loving God) are so incompatible that a choice must be made. Bell argues that there can be only one conclusion, i.e. the title of his book: Love Wins.

Yet, among early Christians, there was no commonly accepted meaning and understanding of the death of Jesus. According to the gospel accounts, the Crucifixion took place because he was charged with insurrection, and his call for the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth was interpreted as seeking the overthrow of the Roman rulers. This history has strong supporting research.

Based on that research, scholars believe that Jesus grew up and taught in a rural area 70 miles north of Jerusalem. His faith was shaped, not by Jerusalem and the Temple, but by weekly gatherings of the community elders as they read Torah (Jewish law) and discussed its meaning.

Jesus and his followers had only limited contact with Jerusalem’s social, political and religious leaders, mostly through the retainers (enforcers) of Herod’s Roman rule who also represented the Jerusalem Temple. Retainers made regular trips into the rural north to collect tithes and taxes.

To understand Jesus, one must realize the depth of his contempt for both the rule of Herod and the religious rulers of the Temple.

Northern Palestine was a hotbed for what was known as the small tradition, which found heroes in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah and other Old Testament prophets, almost all of whom were critics of the great tradition leaders who controlled the Temple in Jerusalem.

As modern New Testament scholars have reconstructed the context in which Jesus lived and taught, they have realized that Jesus was not simply a religious figure. He was a severe critic of those who controlled the Temple, those who controlled the Empire, and those who controlled the economic systems that starved and robbed the poor and left the orphan and the widow to fend for themselves. To Jesus, these issues all tied together.

But Jesus was a largely unknown and harmless critic as long as he remained in his northern rural setting. He was clearly an apocalyptic preacher. He advocated overthrow of a corrupt system. He believed the days of the oppressors were numbered. But he believed the overthrow could be accomplished by love, mercy and kindness.

Jesus took his message to Jerusalem. However, to call his arrival a triumphal entry is to miss the point completely. He chose to enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey as mockery of the ruler’s horse. It was an ancient form of street theatre that Jesus and his followers used to make their point. The great tradition that was accepted by Jerusalem’s masses was being publicly taunted by a figure of the small tradition.

But the critical point of Jesus’s visit to Jerusalem came when he visited the Temple. In no sense had he come to worship and make sacrifice. He went to disrupt and to make pronouncements about the judgment of God on the whole operation. He went to the Temple to announce the destruction of a whole way of life.

As a result, the charges that were leveled against Jesus can be summed up as insurrection. There were three specific charges: encouraging non-payment of taxes, threatening to destroy property (the Temple), and claiming to be a king. It was the Temple incident that took Jesus from being an irritating, but harmless country rebel from the rural north to a nuisance in a city that controlled the great tradition. As a result, Rome’s retainers killed him on a cross.

Yet, how Christians later interpreted these events was influenced by the Old Testament in which priests laid out a sacrificial system in which animals were ceremonially sacrificed to appease God for the sins of the people. Solomon had built a great Temple to carry out these sacrifices. Some Old Testament prophets protested this system, as did Jesus.

The Gospel of John reflected the commonly held interpretation of Jesus’s Crucifixion in the early Second Century C.E.  Stated simply, according to the John writer, Jesus died a martyr’s death on behalf of his friends in protest against a corrupt political and religious system. Jesus willingly died because he loved his friends.

There is another notable insight found in John 15.  Jesus is quoted as saying “No longer will I call you servants but rather I call you friends.” In a bold move, the John writer wipes out the master/servant relationship between Jesus and his disciples and makes it into a friendship so close that Jesus would gladly die for them.

In the passage, Jesus is prompted to call his disciples “friends” four times.  No other place in the four gospels are the disciples called “friends” of Jesus.

However, centuries after Jesus’s death, the Latin interpretation of the Crucifixion took over the Church’s understanding of what happened on that first “Good Friday.” In Latinized Christianity, which followed the Old Testament sacrificial system, the cross became an altar on which Jesus became a sacrificial lamb.

According to the Latinized version, Jesus died for the sins of the world to appease an upset God. Now, many thoughtful Christians, led by Rob Bell, are protesting as unacceptable that understanding of the cross.

Yet, the passage found in John’s gospel gives us a new insight into the meaning of Holy Week and its celebrations. Holy Week does not find its most profound meaning in a sacrificial system that is demanded by an upset God.

Holy Week is a time to celebrate a friendship with Jesus, who is viewed by Christians as the special son of a loving God, a friendship so profound that Jesus was willing to die for the just causes of his friends.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected].  [This article is augmented by some passages from an earlier article by Rev. Bess, “Misunderstanding Jesus’s Execution.”]  

12 comments for “The Two Views of Jesus’s Murder

    • Mohammad Quansamaz
      April 8, 2013 at 12:46

      Boom boom pow, my fine white friend

  1. Mohammad Quansamaz
    April 2, 2013 at 11:39

    I am Jesus , I come back to bend you.

  2. Justina
    April 2, 2013 at 01:02

    it is not either/or. Jesus’ death was sacrificial, yes He is also about justice etc., but His death was accomplished by sending Him into the world “in the fullness of time” as the Scripture says, when the situation was such that He would die. Of course, He came back to life, but as for the idea that there was no established agreed idea about His death (and Resurrection) in the early Church that is wrong, because the ideas of the early (or earliest) Church were those taught by The Apostles, and preserved in their writings, which were passed on to their students and the churches of the first two or three centuries knew what was legitimate and what was not because of the tradition of what was accepted and not, as passed on by people taught by people taught by people taught by people taught by the Apostles taught by Jesus Christ Himself.

    An example is St. Clement of Rome, taught by St. Paul. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, taught by St. Polycarp who was taught by St. John the Apostle. and so forth.
    Justin Martyr was another person two or three removes from The Apostles.

    The disputes that blew up later, were because of departures from the transmitted body of faith practice and writings.

  3. Mark Thomason
    March 31, 2013 at 13:01

    Both. It is not inconsistent. False dichotomy.

    Those who put Him on the cross did so because he was a revolutionary demanding justice.

    God let them do it, when by definition God had power enough to have stopped it, as part of forgiving sins and saving humanity.

    If you believe, then you believe both.

    • Eleanor
      April 1, 2013 at 00:04

      Simply and elegantly stated. Thank you.

  4. Andrew
    March 30, 2013 at 16:03

    So beautiful.

    John 15:15 “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

  5. March 30, 2013 at 14:22

    He was murdered not died for us is not a slam dunk conclusion if one was to conclude God doesn’t exist or isn’t involved.

    20 years ago Kathy Change delivered her writings which if bound would have been a book, on how to get world peace to all the papers in the Philadelphia area and to her acquaintances as well hoping people would read it and thus world peace would come about. Then set herself on fire.

    At first only the University City Review published excerpts of her writings,

    Ambassador Chris Stevens, who spoke fluent Arabic spend his life trying to bring peace and understanding between the US and the Muslim World. It was about to evaporate, due to hate baiting film conspiracy where a clean shaven immaculately neat and tidy and wll manicured short bearded man became wild and blood spattered in the last scene.

    Ambassador Stevens kept demanding not to receive help and the Navy Seals who defied orders and charged in to save him couldn’t find him, but the empathetic Libyans who entered later had no problem finding a choking from smoke ambassador. I Believe Chis Stevens succeeded where Kathy failed.

    All the mass healings 2000 and so years ago did not have to be a hallucination.

    Jesus, Christ, or in-between likely could have avoided the Cross but chose not to.

    • Dar
      April 1, 2013 at 23:58

      “Ambassador Chris Stevens, who spoke fluent Arabic spend his life trying to bring peace and understanding between the US and the Muslim World.”


      He was a envoy to the Western-backed thugs who took over Libya and ruined that country.

      If that’s “bring peace and understanding between the US and the Muslim World”, then those drone operators are the new Saints.

  6. Morton Kurzweil
    March 30, 2013 at 11:04

    If Jesus was a real historical figure, what his life was and what his significance is depends on the opinions of many sources, all of which interpreted theories and claims to suit their own purposes. The different claims are ongoing and have been raised and settled in the usual way: by political fiat, the use of regal conversions, the genocide of opposing beliefs, wars of political influence. None of the spread of belief in Jesus was voluntary or rational.

  7. Eileen Fleming
    March 29, 2013 at 17:33

    Jesus was never a Christian-that term was not coined until 3 decades after his Crucifixion-which was the Roman Occupying Forces standard method of capitol punishment.

    When Jesus said, “Pick up your cross and follow me” everyone then understood he was issuing a political statement, for the road to Jerusalem was lined with crucified rebels, dissidents, agitators and any who disturbed the status quo of the Roman Occupation.

    Jesus was a social justice, radical revolutionary nonviolent Palestinian devout Jewish road warrior who rose up and challenged the job security of the Temple authorities by teaching the people they did NOT need to pay the priests for ritual baths or sacrificing livestock to be OK with God; for God already LOVED them just as they were: poor, diseased, outcasts, widows, orphans, refugees and prisoners all living under a brutal Roman Military Occupation.

  8. Eileen Fleming
    March 29, 2013 at 17:12

    Two thousand years ago, there was lively debate about who Jesus-the very first WIDE AWAKE man was all about. Until the Church got in bed with Emperor Constantine, all churches were hot beds of individuality and not the institutions that have become big business today.

    In 1994, Bishop Spong wrote, “Resurrection: Myth or Reality?” which faced the fact that viewing the resurrection of Jesus as PHYSICAL was a late developing tradition in early Christianity-known as The Way until the days of Paul, in the third decade.

    Paul as well as the gospel writers of Mark and Matthew made NO such claim that the burst of life, light and energy that accompanied the birth of Christianity was dependent on any theology or any dogma…

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