Deconstructing The Cross Of Christ: Was Jesus Crucified? (with Dr. James Tabor, Dr. Ali Ataie, Dr Robert M Price, and Neil Godfrey)
Previously in this miniseries of blog posts, I did the posts:
- Scholar Intermission: Dr. James Tabor
- Religion and Brainwashing
- As well as some earlier blog posts about some of these ideas
Dr. Ali Ataie points out Carrier suggests the reason so many Jewish parents were naming their sons Jesus/Joshua in Jesus’ time is Joshua was the Jews greatest hero and they were hoping their sons would become the messiah martyred fighting Rome, as per Daniel 9:26 (see video below 1:30:18 to 1:34:02)
Ataie points out Paul says “Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was portrayed as Crucified (Gal 3:1)” which suggests there were other factions portraying a non crucified Christ (see above video 1:46:21-1:48:30)
Neil Godfrey (in his interesting blog post here: https://vridar.org/2020/06/12/how-paul-found-christ-crucified-on-a-tree-in-the-scriptures/) translates following Max Wilcox:
- Who bewitched you? Paul demanded to know of the Galatians. He continued: Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was written beforehand [προεγράφη, cf Rom. 15:4] as crucified. But we know from the Temple Scroll, 11QTemple 64:6-13 and possibly 4QpNah 3-4; 7-8, as well as the rabbinic Peshitta on Deuteronomy 21:22-23, that other interpreters read and wrote the passage as putting a living person on a tree; that is, to crucify him. In other words, we see a web of midrashic connections behind not only Paul’s epistle to the Galatians but in other details in the gospels, in Acts (in speeches by both Peter and Paul), in the catholic epistles of the NT. The link is not limited to a few passages in Paul’s works. In Acts 13:28-30 (also Acts 5:30; 10:39) — again Jesus is said to be crucified “on a tree” — presumably part of the same early exegetical tradition. If so, as Wilcox notes, we should find other evidence of such a tradition in the NT. We do: 1 Peter 2:24 combines Isaiah 53:12 with Deuteronomy 21:23 He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree Compare Isaiah 53:12 (who himself bore our sins) and Deuteronomy 21:23 (in his body upon the tree). A couple of verses earlier in the same letter we read of the emphasis on Jesus’ innocence despite his treatment. Thus 1 Peter 2:22 — “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” — is another passage taken from Isaiah, 53:9. But there is another connection even here with Deuteronomy 21:22 through the Septuagint or Greek translation. There the same word for “sin” is used. The structure here follows that of Deuteronomy 21:22-23 We find the same emphasis on the innocence of Jesus in Luke 23 and John 18 and 19. Pilate is noted as having explicitly announced that he found “no just cause of death” in Jesus. Isaac was the true son since Ishmael was the son of the slave. And if Isaac, the promised seed, carried the wood on which he was to be sacrificed just as Jesus carried the “tree” on which he was to be given up by his Father, — we begin to see closer conceptual links between Isaac and Jesus than we had earlier discovered in Levenson’s Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 contains more “mysteries” than I think many of us had imagined. In the minds of the shapers of the NT literature, it links to the Abrahamic promise of blessings and cursings; it links to the Abrahamic promise of possessing all nations (gentiles); it links to the righteous son’s means of death “on the wood/tree”; it contains the seeds of the narrative of Jesus carrying his cross, of him being declared innocent of any crime worthy of death by Pilate, and of being hung from the cross, and being buried that same day, and from there being resurrected. (Godfrey https://vridar.org/2020/06/12/how-paul-found-christ-crucified-on-a-tree-in-the-scriptures/ )
Mark seems to narrate the idea of a change in the early church of people going from following the teachings of the living Jesus to being a death cult. The people who wanted to focus on the living Jesus who were hesitant to adopt the crucified and risen Christ. He writes
- 27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”[h] 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:27-51)
- 19 Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. (Phil 3:19).
Ataie points out, again this issue of non-cross factions. Dennis MacDonald points to Q showing a more inclusive Jesus debating the pharisees and presenting a more relaxed Judaism inclusive and compassionate of those on the margins of society. There is no salvation by crucifixion/resurrection here as there is no crucifixion. We see similar themes in the epistle of James and the Didache.
I have long tried to connect the words of the centurion at the cross in Luke (truly this man was innocent) with the meaning of the cross in Mark (truly this was the son of God). I have received the occasional response that Mark was being sarcastic and Luke was innovating, but I don’t think that their interpretation can be maintained. Ataie gives the following example illustrating my point: In agreement with my reading of the centurions at the cross: Cleomenes III:
- Plutarch wrote a book of biographies called Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, commonly called Parallel Lives at the beginning of the second century. It is considered a work of considerable importance, not only as a source of information and traditions about the individuals described, but also about the times in which they lived. One of them, Cleomenes III, was a Spartan King and radical political reformer. Cleomenes was stabbed in his side and his body was crucified around 220 BCE. As he hung on the cross a snake coiled around his head and prevented the birds from mutilating him. A group of women were watching this. When the King of Alexandria saw this he was suddenly seized with fear. Maybe this was a righteous man, beloved to the Gods. So, he gave the women the rights to perform purification. Plutarch then says the Alexandrians started to worship Cleomenes, and would come to the cross and address Cleomenes as a hero and son of the Gods (see above video 2:42:41 – 2:44:38). See Plutarch, “The Parallel Lives,” The Life of Cleomenes, section 39.
This is exactly the moral influence reading I make of the soldier at the cross in Mark (Truly this was the son of God) and Luke (Truly this was an innocent man). I follow the general Moral Influence interpretation of the cross instead of Penal Substitution, which is most conspicuous in Luke. I often cite Ehrman that:
- 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. (Ehrman, 2017; compare Ehrman 2022a, 2022b, and 2022c)
I just try to apply a moral influence cross across the board of NT texts: Not Jesus vicariously paying humanity’s sin debt to assuage God’s wrath at sin, but “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” We adopt the vicarious atonement interpretation when we only have a superficial understanding of the image of Jesus as the Yom Kippur goats and paschal lamb, and fail to press through to the deeper meaning of these animal religious rituals. After all, Jesus teaching the lord’s prayer about forgiveness was not meant to apply only after the crucifixion/resurrection.
An alternative model Ataie also considers is the Romans were not involved but the Jews killed Jesus, stoning and then perhaps crucifying Jesus for sorcery. Paul points out Jesus was killed by the archons of this aeon, which could mean Romans, Jews, Angels, Demons, etc. Interestingly, Paul says the rulers don’t wrong good citizens, but rather: “13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God (Romans 13:1),” which is hard to square with the anti Roman sentiment of the Gospels. I think we loosen the tension with the emphasis on Demons possessing people, like Satan entering Judas, so the real issue is figuring out how to nullify Satan’s power of influence. Following Josephus, John the Baptist’s execution for creating a climate that could incite an insurrection reached some as rumors that Jesus had been executed, while others disbelieved, etc. The difference between the account of the reasons for and methods of the death of the baptizer in the gospels and Josephus certainly raises the question of whether we can assume Jesus died by crucifixion just because the gospels say so. And Paul does say the Jews, not the Romans killed Jesus, in a passage disputed for its authenticity.
Ataie wants to argue, following Tabor, that there is a non crucifixon Jesus sect that is lead by Jesus’s brother James that was basically a more lenient Torah based system reaching out to the margins of society that didn’t relate to crucifixion atoning blood or a resurrection theology. It’s reflective of much seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the “earth,” on earth as it is in heaven. Paul and the later Pauline gospels turned this into a death cult we are familiar with today.
2 main arguments against this Tabor/Ataie thesis are the Philippian Pre Pauline Christ Hymn and The Pre Pauline Corinthian creed which probably go back to Peter/James and feature Jesus’s death. I think there were factions that ignored the death and focused on Jesus’s earthly teaching (encapsulated in Q, the Didache, and the forged epistle of James), I just don’ think Peter and James were responsible here.
I think the main confusion is people have a simplistic view of Yom Kippur and the 2 goats and so misread what an atoning sacrifice and scapegoat ultimately entail, not to mention completely missing the sense in which Jesus is a paschal lamb. This mostly stems from uncritically accepting Mark’s Jesus of Nazareth/Barabbas satire as authoritative lens, as though it’s not hilarious that the cruel Pilate, Roman figure of Justice in the region, would free Barabbas, a known murderer of Romans!
From The Pre-pauline “Poem” in Philippians 2:
And being found in human shape
He humbled himself
And become obedient to the point of death (even death on a cross).
The Pre Pauline Corinthian Creed/Poetry:
That Christ died for our sins
in accordance with the scriptures.
and that he was buried;
That he was raised on the third day
in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
These 2 pre Pauline quotations Paul makes cast doubt on the idea that Peter and James didn’t have a death centered faith. But look at what they don’t say. The Corinthian Creed just says death, not cross. And as Michael Cook comments on his annotation of the Philippians epistle in the second edition of the Jewish Annotated New Testament: “Even death on a cross, possibly added by Paul to the received hymn to dramatize how Christ’s humiliation was that reserved for a malefactor (see Deut 21:23) – a fall to the lowest imaginable low from a pre-incarnation highest imaginable high (Cook, JANT2ndEd, 400).” So, we seem to have a focus on Jesus’s death with Peter and James, just not a cross, and so we have a scriptural interpretation of Christ’s death with the Jerusalem bunch following the Yom Kippur goats and the paschal lamb, and the death and resurrection draped over the story of Jonah and the big fish. With Paul, there is a furthering the interpretation in terms of the cross recapitulating psalm 22, Isaiah 53 and especially the “hung on a tree” of Galatians pointing to Deuteronomy. Death cult theology seems to be there with Peter, James, and Paul, but cross theology seems to be the innovation of Paul, and the New Testament is cross centered because Mark is Pauline. See Carrier’s post on Mark’s use of Paul here: https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/15934
So, we have 2 main factions, one being Peter, James, and Paul who focus on the death of Christ (it’s a guess to how Jesus actually died?), and the other faction who don’t seem to be looking at the death and resurrection but presumably the teaching of Jesus during his life. Tabor sees this as not requiring faith in Jesus for justification, but the forgiveness of God and is best preserved in the James epistle, Q, and the Didache. Tabor has to make some interpretive leaps to argue this isn’t Jesus-needed, as he admits the James epistle does refer to Jesus in two places, but supposes this to be an interpolation that flows naturally in the text if the Jesus part is removed. I think the overall Tabor thesis is right about a competing Christianity that was not a death cult [the super apostles/false apostles/false brethren I talked about in these posts: 1) Scholar Intermission: Dr. James Tabor 2) Religion And Brainwashing ], I just reject Tabor’s conclusion that James was part of the non-death-cult, and so we need to keep in mind the mentions of in the James epistle about Jesus and that the epistle of James was forged, and so there is no reason to think it reflects the historical James.
Death and resurrection theology is specifically related to the Jerusalem bunch and Paul here. The Jesus vision of James is added by Paul next to the inherited Corinthian creed/poetry, reflecting that James, as described in the gospels, was a later convert by way of caliphate as Jesus’s brother. Perhaps the hallucination converted him?
Paul says in his letters the main takeaway from his conversion is the power, truth, and force of his conversion from arch-persecutor / devoted apostle, which demonstrated the truth of the Christ faith. Now, a common theme running through the gospels is that the Jewish high council wanted Jesus dead, but they couldn’t do it so they tricked Pilate into doing it. We don’t know whether the Jews killed Jesus, or the Romans, how he died, or even if he died instead of just going into hiding. Similarly, we don’t know whether the reason for John the Baptist’s death reflects the gospel accounts, or that of Josephus.
So was Jesus crucified? Any historian should take a serious pause on this issue given that Mark’s crucifixion Narrative is crafted by creatively recapitulating Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, as well as Dr. Ataie outlines in the video above Dennis MacDonald showing how the passion narrative is in mimetic/imitative relation with Greek poetry. It’s absurd that the Jewish supreme council would have convened on Passover eve to deal with the Jesus issue, for instance. If all the minor points are literary invention, why must we insist on the historicity of the context?
But, from a form-critical point of view the most historically damning evidence is one Ataie doesn’t even mention above in the video: that Paul understands the crucifixion, as he says in Galatians 3:13, to be recapitulating and fulfilling (filling full of meaning) Deuteronomy 21:22-23. Christ crucified would thus mean Jesus was the specially chosen one by God wrongfully killed by society, though in actual case he may have been stoned or beheaded or killed otherwise, or forced into hiding. If we bracket the historicity of Mark’s passion narrative on literary imitation grounds, then we bracket the historicity of the crucifixion by virtue of the same critical form.
Duane Aslett points out the trial of Stephen in Acts mimics the trial of Christ on this “being wronged by society issue:
- The polemical nature of Stephen’s speech serves to show that the charges against him are false and on the contrary, that the audience stands guilty of these charges. The charges of blasphemy against temple and law are committed by the audience in resisting the Holy Spirit, who is the witness of Christ, and betraying and murdering Jesus, who is the Temple and the Law., in the light of Deuteronomy and the cursed one [as cursed following a Penal Substitution, or viewed as cursed following a Moral Influence reading]
Price gives an analysis about this biblical theme I would like to share here:
Rough Crowd (6:8-8:1)
- Luke is not done with Naboth, Ahab, and Jezebel yet. Now he makes the hapless Naboth into the bold proto-martyr Stephen. Remember, Naboth was framed by the witch-queen Jezebel. She managed to get the elders and freemen to bear false witness against a bewildered Naboth. Stephen suffers the same treatment at the hands of the Synagogue of Freedmen. Both righteous men were accused of double blasphemy, Naboth supposedly defaming both God and king, Stephen reportedly badmouthing Moses and God. Both men are carried outside the city limits and stoned to death. When Ahab hears of the outcome, he tears his garments in self-reproach. This note of sartorial suicide Luke has transformed into the detail of young Saul of Tarsus checking the coats of the stoning mob. The very name “Stephen” is a clue to the fictitious nature of the story, as it translates as “crown,” and (what do you know?) Stephen wins the crown of martyrdom. He is thus an ideal figure, “Mr. Martyr.” But there may nonetheless be a historical core to the martyrdom of Stephen, or at least an earlier legend lying behind it. Both Hans-Joachim Schoeps and Robert Eisenman have suggested that the Stephen story is a reworking of the story of the martyr death of James the Just. Indeed, there are vivid similarities. Josephus briefly notes the event in his Antiquities of the Jews, Book XX, chapter IX. (Price, Robert M.. Holy Fable Volume 2: The Gospels and Acts Undistorted by Faith (p. 260-265). Mindvendor. Kindle Edition.)
So does the reality reflect Jesus as reflecting an augmented form of the humiliating death of John the Baptist in the gospels, or an augmented form of the wrongful death of Stephen? Or both? Or neither? But, the sword cuts both ways. Does the stoning of Stephen imitate the death of Christ, or are both a common Moral Influence type? Clearly, indicating the crucifixion of Jesus may just be conveying an exemplary type of someone being wrongfully put to death by society (whereas like John the Baptist the historical person had a different death from what we encounter in the gospels or letters), in John the Baptist’s case we seem to have a death that is a literary humiliation that is then contrasted with the most violent and humiliating death possible: Jesus being crucified. Again, the sword cuts both ways, and so it may not be the baptizer account is meant to imitate Jesus, but that both are purely literary and Jesus might have been stoned like Steven or otherwise killed like John in Josephus – or that Jesus just went into hiding.
For more, see my other posts on this blog (I’m one of the bloggers here), as well as my three modern library essays:
Here’s the link: https://infidels.org/author/john-macdonald/
Bonus Footage! Did You Ever Hear The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis The Wise?