Did Jesus Teach His Death Was Key To Salvation Like Paul Taught? A Few Minutes With Bart Ehrman

see above video Time 7:34-9:55

Critical scholars often think Jesus did not preach about the crucifixion or resurrection during his lifetime, or the idea that these events had some special “saving” component for humanity.  There are numerous lines of evidence for this.  One important one in the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus’ disciples seemed to have no clue Jesus was supposed to be arrested and die as part of the mission.  We can infer this from the fact that Mark says Jesus’ disciples got violent at the arrest.  Why would this violence have happened if they thought Jesus was supposed to be arrested?  Mark obviously had a problem with reconciling the central event of the crucifixion with the problem no one knew it was supposed to happen, by inventing the obviously ad hoc hypothesis that Jesus repeatedly explained in clear terms that the crucifixion and resurrection was coming, but that the disciples were too clueless to understand.  The obvious inference here is that the disciples were well known to have clashed with the arresting party, and Mark had to explain this away.  A similar line of evidence is that at the earliest stage of the Q source (the material common to Matthew and Luke that didn’t come from Mark) the crucifixion and resurrection are not even mentioned.  Conservative Christian scholars are quite uncomfortable with such evidence because their whole approach falls apart if the crucifixion and resurrection are not basic to the religion.  Carrier has a similar problem so he denies any history can be distilled from the gospels, and denies there is a Q source. 

Regarding the cross, there are two basic models: the penal substitution or vicarious atonement model, and the moral influence model.  Here is a helpful brief wiki article on moral influence.  Penal substitution is basically the idea from Conservative (current and former) Christians and mythicists that the original Christians thought we deserved to die for our sins, but lucky us Jesus died in our place so we’re saved!  Moral Influence counters with the logical point that if punishing an innocent child in Africa for the crimes of a felon in Chicago obviously doesn’t serve justice, how would punishing innocent Jesus for our sins serve justice?  Moreover it imputes on the Jewish tradition a God who can’t forgive, which runs afoul of any number of Hebrew scripture portraits like the Penitential Psalms or the Story of Jonah.

There seem to be a couple of things going on.  Paul says in 1 Corinthians he received (presumably from James, Peter, and John son of Zebedee) that Christ died “for” our sins.  On the one hand, this seems to reflect the Yom Kippur sacrifices of the pure goat and the violent death of the scapegoat, as well as a moral component where Jesus’ death awakens us to our moral depravity and inspires repentance.  So Jesus dies “for our sins” to be made conspicuous so we can repent. In this way, there seems to be two levels: a superficial level of Jesus dying “for our sins,” erasing then like a super blood magic version of the Yom Kippur goats, and a more essential version of making our hidden sins conspicuous so we can work on them.  After all, forgiveness is meaningless if we don’t have a contrite heart because we will just sin again. Mark satirizes the penal substitution view with the absurd fictional account of Barabbas being released instead of Jesus. From a literary point of view, the idea that the cruel historical Pilate would release Barabbas, a known killer of Romans thereby condemning Jesus who he found no fault with just to placate the crowd, Jewish subjects the historical Pilate couldn’t care less about, emphatically shows that the Yom Kippur sacrifices result in the very opposite of Justice. We need to see beyond this vicarious atonement surface level to a more noble Socratic Moral Influence ethics.

I think what we’re getting is a fusion of the Jewish Yom Kippur sacrifice tradition with the pagan death of Socrates and the impaled just man in Plato’s Republic tradition, the Republic being the most famous book in the ancient world.  With Socrates, we have a pagan unjust death and what it inspires, like the transfiguring of the pagan Roman soldier at the cross.  Socrates’ famous last words were a prayer of thanksgiving to divine Asclepius for the hemlock poison, presumably because it cures him of the prison (sema) of his body (soma), and will work as a catalyst to change society that was responsible for his unjust death (pharmakon: poison and cure).  Similarly, the impaled just man in the Republic was a challenge of how could a just man who is horribly killed for his ideals be a more desirable life than a unjust man with all the pleasures of the world?  Clearly, the answer is “if the death meant something.”

Similarly, there seems to be an invented literary pair in Mark between the desperate Gethsemane prayer and the Psalm 22 based cry from the cross, emphasizing Jesus’ desperation, but that he ultimately trusted in God. 2 points: Obviously, if Jesus thought the cup could be taken from him, Mark is winking that Jesus didn’t think he needed to die for God’s plan to be realized. But ultimately it was probably well known Jesus was squealing like a pig on the cross and this didn’t fit with the later salvific mission interpretation of the cross, so Mark started spinning things. We thus see a contrast between the cup Jesus wished taken from him and the cup of poison hemlock Socrates took. Socrates in the prison cell in Athens, according to Plato’s account, took his cup of hemlock ‘without trembling or changing colour or expression’. He then ‘raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it’. When his friends burst into tears, he rebuked them for their ‘absurd’ behaviour and urged them to ‘keep quiet and be brave’. He died without fear, sorrow or protest. Luke thus changed the panic stricken Jesus of Mark’s cross to a Socratic calm resolute one because it makes better theological sense.


The question of parables is obviously central. Jesus makes the shocking claim that he teaches in parables so the masses won’t understand or be forgiven, though the disciples have been given the key (Mark 4:11). A key point seems to be the parables aren’t just intellectual puzzles to be solved, but must be experienced. The key is that the disciples have the person of Jesus. For instance, Jesus tells Peter he will deny him 3 times, but Peter doesn’t experience the truth of this until he actually does it: “Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly. (Mark 14:66–72).” Likewise it is the actual death of Jesus on the cross that transforms the pagan Roman soldier, Jesus merely predicting it left no impression or understanding on the disciples.

We see then like with Plato’s allegory of the cave there is going to be an experiential aspect. It’s not just conceptual knowledge. For example, to understand Plato’s cave allegory on insight perhaps you lived in a world where the traditional definition of marriage was the cherished standard, only to be given in a flash of insight that it unintentionally does violence to LGBTQIA+ rights. Everything thus is reinterpreted in a new light. An allegory is a senses image where something concrete is used to represent something else. Aristotle thus says while most truths can be communicated by assertions, some profound ones require a sense-image, a sense touching (thigein, Aristotle, Met. IX, 10). In this way we have the parable of the cross. From one point of view, where most people stop, we can look at what Jesus accomplished on the cross. But the reverse is also true, we can look at what the world did to Jesus, even his disciples denying him and abandoning him, and so the world becomes aware of its hidden sinfulness and the focal point for how it can change. In this way, contra the conservative penal substitution interpretation of Jesus, Jesus says he didn’t come to abolish the law but fulfill it, eg make it stricter: Adultery is not just the sex act but even a lustful eye. It is when our worldview collides head on with this impossible standard that an opportunity for moral growth is born.

Paul says the cross isn’t an intellectual concept to be grasped, but to be experienced, which he calls being crucified with Christ, the fleshly part of our hearts being circumcised, like the conversion of the soldier at the cross. In this way, the tearing of the temple veil is not glorious as is often supposed, but terrifying, that no animal sacrifice could ever atone for what the world had done to God’s specially chosen Jesus. Matthew emphasizes the terror of the tearing of the veil by accompanying it with an earthquake. The temple cult was overcome (the withering of the fig tree) because it is realized that it is the opposite of Justice, hence we have the satire of the gross injustice of Barabbas being released because of Jesus being condemned.

Click through the symbol below to get to my Scripture Studies index: