The Roman Soldier At The Cross In Mark

Ehrman comments:

  • It is easy to see Luke’s own distinctive view by considering what he has to say in the book of Acts, where the apostles give a number of speeches in order to convert others to the faith. What is striking is that in none of these instances (look, e.g., in chapters 3, 4, 13), do the apostles indicate that Jesus’ death brings atonement for sins. It is not that Jesus’ death is unimportant. It’s extremely important for Luke. But not as an atonement. Instead, Jesus death is what makes people realize their guilt before God (since he died even though he was innocent). Once people recognize their guilt, they turn to God in repentance, and then he forgives their sins. see:

I expand the Lukan Moral Influence interpretation of the cross to the New Testament generally, not just Luke, and use it to argue against the Penal Substitution (sin debt payment) interpretation of the cross. As with anything else in biblical studies regarding the New Testament, the evidence is often ambiguous and can be taken a number of ways. I find Ehrman’s interpretation of Luke’s crucifixion model compelling as he outlines it in Misquoting Jesus and The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. It fits nicely with the ancient understanding of the “turning of the mirror” imagery we see with the death of Socrates in the Phaedo (“let us offer a rooster to Asclepius”) and elsewhere. This reading of Ehrman was current as of his 2017 blog post I linked to, and fits perfectly with the “father forgive them” statement of the Lukan crucified Jesus.

As I have discussed with Carrier in the past when I interviewed him for II/SW, his “sin debt payment” interpretation of the cross has some major flaws.

For one thing, as he himself admits, sin debt atonement is logically incoherent because it doesn’t, for instance, serve justice to punish an innocent child in Africa for the crimes of a felon in Chicago. That’s the opposite of justice! Moreover, as Dr. McGrath has repeatedly and compellingly shown along with other progressive Christian thinkers, the “sin debt payment” interpretation as God demanding justice because he can’t forgive is completely idiosyncratic in a Jewish context because if there is one thing the God of the Hebrew scriptures can and does do, it’s forgive.

Dr. Fredriksen has compellingly shown that Paul was not divorced from Judaism but thoroughly Jewish to the end. To say Paul, highly educated in Judaism and from the birthplace of the Stoic enlightenment, would have as his core belief something utterly incoherent and fundamentally un-Jewish at such a foundational level is problematic. To maintain the penal substitution interpretation of atonement you have to believe the original Jesus movement had at its foundation a principle that was completely logically incoherent and utterly foreign to the basic understanding of the forgiving Jewish God.

Carrier would have to outline a highly sophisticated argument to overcome these prior existing contextual interpretive hurdles. He certainly doesn’t provide such a defense in his scholarly monograph On The Historicity Of Jesus or his popular trade book Jesus From Outer Space. As Gordon Wenham shows regarding Christ’s sacrifice and the book of Hebrews, the Levitical background of Hebrews shows that the sacrifice of the one animal is meant to purify the location so God can be present amidst a sinful people. The other Levitical animal here, the scapegoat that the sins of the people are placed upon, is not killed, but in fact released into the wilderness, so this isn’t a model that can be used to prooftext Christ’s death as being responsible for the sin debt being wiped clean.

I appreciate Christian origins from a secular philosophical standpoint. For instance, I appreciate Jesus redefining Love/Agape from love of God and neighbor to include love of enemy. This helps us move beyond the eros of glory/honor obsessed Achilles to bestowing value where even those who are sometimes seen as undesirable like widow, orphan, stranger and enemy have full worth. That was Nietzsche’s positive takeaway from Jesus in the Antichrist: the loving Jesus vs the blaming Christ. It’s just a healthy approach to life if you strip away the magic/superstition.

There’s so many different ways to interpret Jesus. Some of the more popular are apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish messiah, prophet of social change, and rabbi. More recently, we can add Jesus as mythical figure placed in human history (like Hercules).. I disagree with mythicism because it depends on the penal substitution interpretation of the cross, which I disagree with as an interpretive model. I don’t think there was any theology originally connected to the cross. That came later. Our first gospel Mark has an interesting story of the disciples getting violent at the arrest. It’s unlikely Mark would have invented the story of the disciples being violent. Also, they wouldn’t have gotten violent if it was part of the plan for Jesus to die. But who knows? I think Jesus existed, but is basically lost behind endless layers of propaganda and magic.

So basically what I’m arguing is Jesus was wrongly put to death because of the sins of the enraged crowd, corrupt religious elite, and crowd placating indifferent to justice Pilate, who are also in all of us to varying degrees. So, the more you hear or read about Jesus and all he said and did, the more you see what a travesty his execution was. God’s specially chosen one meant to restore the Davidic throne was given the most horrific possible execution.

As we come to see our guilt in this, we repent and also want the world to change. This happens, for instance, when we look at our society we created and how it trampled on LGBTQ rights with the traditional definition of marriage. This repentance was especially urgent in Jesus’ time because they thought the end of the age and judgment was imminent. We see something similar with the death of Socrates where the more we learn about him, the more offended and outraged we are that society put him to death. And this approach works. We no longer execute people for being a nuisance (Socrates the gadfly).

This is what I’m arguing against the penal substitution interpretation, which as I said is logically incoherent and fundamentally un-Jewish.

For me, one thing I think we need to ask is what problem was the original Jesus movement trying to solve? For me, Ehrman and Allison make a compelling case that the first Christians were apocalyptic. They thought the end of the age was near, and so also final judgment. The problem was that people were awful (consider the enraged crowd, corrupt religious elite, and indifferent to justice/crowd placating Pilate in Mark) and needed to have a change of heart and repent if they were to be judged favorably.

So, the question is how does the cross inspire a change of heart and repentance? Carrier’s model, that Jesus was never on earth but crucified by demons in outer space seems to have little ability to make our guilt conspicuous. On the other hand, as I identify with the moral failings of the crowd, religious elite and Pilate, this can certainly make explicit my own shortcomings to me and hence be a catalyst for a change of heart and repentance. Without repentance forgiveness is impotent, such as with a wife continually forgiving a spouse who won’t stop cheating. Realization and a change of heart is needed, and I think that’s one reason my model makes more sense of the cross than Carrier’s.

New Conservative Christian: Christ’s death wiped away my sin debt. I’m clean

Devil’s Advocate: What if you sin again?

New Conservative Christian: I can repent

Devil’s Advocate: If repentance works, why did Jesus have to die in the first place?

Mark highlights the enraged crowd, corrupt religious elite, an indifferent to justice / crowd placating Pilate (breaking Roman law – releasing Barabbas, a known killer of Romans, and having the crowd decide Jesus’s fate) bringing about the unjust death of Jesus, and Jesus allowing his death to make this hidden evil conspicuous: my version of the classic Moral Influence interpretation of the cross by Abelard. And this is what happens. The Roman soldier says “truly this is God’s son.” In Luke the soldier says “truly this was an innocent mam.” That’s what I make of it as a literary theme. It’s the same as Socrates death in the Phaedo though extremely augmented because Jesus is the specially favored son of God.

Jesus’ death does not cancel out the law and temple as penal substitution would argue. Paul thought the law and temple were an artificial burden for the gentiles, but a privilege for the Jews, so it’s important to note who Paul is addressing. The Jewish Paul had a favorable view of the Law and temple for himself and the Jews when considered apart from the Gentiles. For the Jewish Paul, it was not a burden but a privilege (e.g., Romans 9:4-5; 1:3; 15:9; see Fredriksen, 2018, p. 25, 35, 154, 165). Fredriksen comments:

  • This is not an either/or situation: for Paul God’s spirit dwells both in the Jerusalem temple and in the “new temple” of the believer and of the community. (Fredriksen, 2018, p. 154)
  • Why, then, should Paul, or any other apostle who was a member of this covenant community, have ceased to live according to the Law? The Law was a curse for gentiles…. The Law was a service of death for gentiles. But for Israel the Law, God-given, was a defining privilege. (Fredriksen, 2018, p. 165)

Fredriksen argues that Paul does not reject the temple, but likens the new pagan believers to it (1 Corinthians 10:14-22; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16).

Another aspect could be literary repentance imagery working at both an individual level and a group level. So at an individual level we can have the repentant soldier claiming Jesus was the son of God/innocent innocent in Luke, and at a group level we can have the repentant nations come to realize how terribly they acted toward the Jews. Marshall Roth offers one way of reading Isaiah 53 with this theme. For instance, he says:

  • The 53rd chapter of Isaiah is a beautiful, poetic song, one of the four “Servant Songs” in which the prophet describes the climactic period of world history when the Messiah will arrive and the Jewish people assume the role as the spiritual leaders of humanity… Isaiah 53 is a prophecy foretelling how the world will react when they witness Israel’s salvation in the Messianic era. The verses are presented from the perspective of world leaders, who contrast their former scornful attitude toward the Jews with their new realization of Israel’s grandeur. After realizing how unfairly they treated the Jewish people, they will be shocked and speechless. See:

I think transformation is a major theme, the way we are transformed when the cross of Christ makes conspicuous the enraged crowd, corrupt religious elite and indifferent to justice Pilate who are also present in us as a catalyst for our repentance. There is a societal connection, and as I said above the nations come to see how they mistreated Israel and this inspires repentance.

The repentant Roman soldiers in Mark and Luke seem to suggest this way of interpreting, and make sense in the context of an expected coming judgment. But this is all literary framing so it would take a sophisticated line of argument to find history here. It’s historical fiction. On the other hand, if we read this interpretation of the cross back into Paul, it would seem there was probably some historical Jesus in there somewhere.

For my historicist reading it is Christ’s blood / brutal torture and death that awakens what Paul calls the law written on our hearts and, following Luke, awakens our guilt and hence is a catalyst for our repentance. It may even be awakened guilt that prompted Paul’s conversion experience, as he had relatives such as Junia high up in the early Jesus movement he was persecuting = cognitive dissonance.

It is not a question of going back into the Hebrew Scripture and prooftexting this or that, but asking how is the crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus solving a problem. McGrath comments

  • Yet the New Testament does not use the language of punishment and exchange in the way 4 Maccabees (which was written after the early Christians had already interpreted the death of Jesus in atoning, sacrificial terms) does. Paul can talk about sacrifice (and discussing what sacrifice meant in the Judaism of this time would be a subject of its own), but he prefers to use the language of participation. One died for all, so that all died (2 Corinthians 5:14). This is not only different from substitution, it is the opposite of it. Jesus is here understood not to prevent our death but to bring it about! This fits neatly within his understanding of there being two ages, with Christ having died to one and entered the resurrection age, and with Christians through their connection to him having already died to the present age and thus made able to live free from its dominion. see:

This is my argument for Paul: Paul was apocalyptic. He called the resurrected Jesus the “firstfruits” of the general resurrection of souls at the end of the age which had begun in his eyes. In other words, judgment was coming soon. For the people to be judged favorably they needed to repent. The Lukan moral influence interpretation of the cross paints the cross as a tool for making our hidden guilt conspicuous so that we can be convicted by the law written on our hearts and repent. A Carrier/Doherty celestial sin-debt-wiped-clean-cross doesn’t accomplish this because how do demons executing Christ in the sky inspire my repentance, and even if my current sin debt is wiped clean what if I sin horribly again (does Christ have to die again?).

So I think Moral Influence is a better interpretation of the cross than Penal Substitution (paying the sin debt), and historicism makes a good case. The cross loses all effect to make manifest my guilty if I don’t identify and see in myself those who killed Jesus. The relenting/repenting Roman soldier seems to both function on the individual level I outlined above, and on the societal level with Jesus as Israel and the soldier as Rome, because remember Joel 3 said the nations would be judged for mistreating Israel, so there needed to be societal repentance too. But these are all individual and societal issues grounded specifically in human history, not having to do with Jesus as a great angel never having been on earth and crucified by demons in outer space as mythicism wants.

Just to show Mark’s Roman Soldier isn’t being sarcastic as Neil Godfrey claims, we read:

  • 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion who stood facing him saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:37-39 NRSVUE)

As anyone can see, the miracle of the temple curtain being torn precedes and is the context for understanding the admission by the soldier that Jesus is God’s true son, snubbing Caesar who the Romans would have seen as the son of God. Just as the curtain miraculously tore, the Roman soldier miraculously declared Jesus the son of God rather than Caesar. The soldier has undergone a transformation. A “gospel” means propaganda, that’s what kind of writing it is – exaggeration and flattering a known historical figure. Helms comments:

  • The syncretic flavor of Mark is at once evident from his reproduction of a piece of Augustan imperial propaganda and his setting it beside a tailored scripture quote. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE): “Whereas… Providence… has… brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar… who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior…, and whereas… the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.” (Helms, p. 24, in Price)

I think it’s plausible Paul had his conversion experience/hallucination out of cognitive dissonance related to repressed guilt from persecuting a movement who he had relatives high up in like Junia. I think this is the meaning of the cross generally: Christ crucified as a catalyst for a person to see themselves as a microcosm of the world that wrongly executed Jesus, and thus being convicted by the Law written on her heart (Rom 2:15), the person is inspired to repent/die to this evil age, and in this way is crucified with Christ. Paul said:

  • I have been crucified with Christ, 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Gal 2:20,)
  • 14 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. (2 Cor 5:14)

So, Paul says above that Jesus died for us which allows us to die (be convicted by the Law written on our hearts), to be crucified with him, which is the OPPOSITE of Penal Substitution which argues for Christ dying instead of us to appease a God who can’t forgive: The Penal Substitution interpretation of the cross is not to be found in Paul. For a couple good blog posts on the silliness of the sin debt interpretation of the cross, see Dr. McGrath’s 2 posts here:

The Odious Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement


What was original Pauline Christianity in a nutshell? Jesus was wrongly convicted and killed by the world so that the world could be justly convicted by the law written on their hearts and have the corrupt worldly/fleshly parts of themselves die.

I am secular and so find no supernatural events here. When I say the horrific torture and execution of Christ awakens guilt in us, I just mean it in the same sense that the traditional definition of marriage we’ve always had appears in a new and darker light when we see it doing violence to LGBTQ rights. Analogously, the more we think about Socrates, the more we are horrified at his execution in a way his society did not see. Similarly, we do not kill people for the crimes Jesus died for anymore – at least not in civilized modern society. It’s all in this blog post link I provided before: https://secularfrontier.infidels.or…ast-about-mythicism-atonement-and-gnosticism/