One of the questions that has occupied the "Third Questers" is: Why was Jesus crucified? A myriad of ideas have been proposed. Almost all agree that Jesus was "crucified under Pontius Pilate".
Of one thing we can be sure the cross was not a mistake! It was essential to the purpose and plan of God in redeeming his creation. Why did Jesus die? "Because God willed it!" The answer to our question will also depend upon who we ask: the crowd, the Jewish leaders, the Romans and Jesus (as well as the myriad of theologians and historians through the ages) would all give different answers. Reality is multifaceted.
Martin Hengel (1977) summarises his survey of crucifixion as follows:
- Crucifixion was widespread in the first century
- Crucifixion was a political and military punishment
- It was used because of its powerful effect as a deterrent
- It satisfied the lust for revenge
- It represented the uttermost humiliation, aggravated by the fact that the victims were rarely buried
- The Romans used it on all dangerous criminals and members of the lower classes.
We can be sure then that Jesus died the death of a victim of a political system. The death of Jesus marks God's solidarity with the oppressed. Commenting on this Richard Bauckham says: "It is as one of the victims that in his love he reaches all of us."
An Overview of the Literature
S. G. F. Brandon (1967) regarded Jesus as a revolutionary sympathiser who was killed as a messianic pretender. Hyam Maccoby (1986), who claims Jesus was a Pharisee, thinks that by asking why a Jew from Galilee would meet an end on a Roman cross. Galilee, perhaps because it was not under direct Roman rule, had been a centre of rebellion (a point also made by Vermes). This leads Maccoby to conclude that Jesus was the latest in a line of rebels; he therefore suffered the same fate as Judas of Galilee and his supporters: he was crucified by the Romans on a charge of sedition.
Ed Sanders totally undermines Brandon's and Maccoby's arguments when he notes that Jesus' disciples weren't rounded up and likewise executed. The disciples remaining free implies that Jesus was not crucified for revolutionary intent against Rome.
For Geza Vermes (1973), Jesus is a first-century charismatic Jew, a "paramount example of the early Hasidim or Devout", others included Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Cirle-Drawer. Vermes in an attempt to exonerate the Jews comments:
It was not on a Jewish religious indictment, but on a secular accusation that he was condemned by the emperor's delegate to die shamefully on the Roman cross.That accusation was that "Jesus was a political agitator with pretensions to being the king of the Jews".
Ellis Rivkin (1984) thinks that we should not ask who but what crucified Jesus. His answer: "it emerges with great clarity, both from Josephus and the Gospels, that the culprit is not the Jews, but the Roman imperial system".
E. P. Sanders (1985), "a liberal, modern, secularized Protestant, brought up in a church dominated by the social gospel", in his seminal study Jesus and Judaism affirms two "facts": "Jesus was executed by the Romans as would-be 'king of the Jews', and his disciples subsequently formed a messianic movement which was not based on the hope of military victory". For Sanders two phrases are important: "physical demonstration" and "noticeable following". The physical demonstration was Jesus' "cleansing" of the temple: "simply speaking against the temple - prophesying its destruction - would lead to punishment and at least the threat of death". His noticeable following made it "expedient to kill Jesus, rather than flog him simply as a nuisance and release him".
Francis Watson (1985) with Sanders sees Jesus' attitude and actions towards the temple as the reason for his death. He regards the idea that Jesus was convicted on a purely religious charge and was condemned only reluctantly by Pilate as "historically highly unlikely", he contends that it was fabricated by Gentile Christians "who did not wish either themselves or their master to be regarded as political subversives". For Watson then, "The answer to the question of why Jesus was crucified seems to be his threat against the temple". He justifies this answer by examining the examples of other eschatological prophets that met with the same fate: John the Baptist(c AD30), Jesus the son of Ananias(c AD62), Theudas(c AD44/5), unnamed prophets that appeared during the procuratorship of Felix (AD 52-60) and an unnamed Egyptian.
It is highly unlikely that the threat to the temple is the only cause of Jesus' death; though it is one very important factor. If it were the controlling factor it is certain Luke would have made much more of the incident in the Temple.
N. T. Wright (1989) develops the view of Schweitzer. Schweitzer held the view that Jesus' death was a direct consequence of him taking upon himself the "messianic woes"; for Wright Jesus' death was the result/fulfilment of Jesus' outworking of his mission as a prophet, as announcer of the kingdom, as messiah, as the son returning to the vineyard. Jesus dies Israel's death and so is enthroned as Israel's king.
Wright offers the most convincing arguments for the death of Jesus. It is Jesus desire to redeem Israel (and the rest of creation) that sets him on a collision course with the Jewish leaders and the ruling Romans: his death was inevitable. For the Romans he represented a threat to the stability of Israel. For the Jews he attacked almost everything that made them Jewish: the temple, the sabbath, the laws of separation; his increasing popularity meant that he had to be disposed of. And for Jesus he was fulfilling the will of his Father who had sent him for such apurpose: he was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world.
Gustaf Aulen addressed this issue from the theological angle. In his seminal work he outlined two theories of atonement that dominated theological discussion for centuries: an objective model and a subjective model; associated with Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury (c.1033-1109) and the Frenchman Peter Abelard (1079-1142) respectively. Aulen also restated a third type of view the Christus Victor model, which received scant attention for centuries; this was largely because of the vehement controversy between the classic and the Latin models - each were only interested in scoring theological points off each other, hence a possible third - and more dramatic - view was ignored and neglected.
The Anselmian Latin model
This model was first formulated in Anselm's Cur Deus homo (Why Did God Become Human?). Put simply this "objective" view of the atonement sees God as the object of Christ's work on the cross: God is reconciled to humanity, by the substitutionary death of his son. Jesus died in our place, he suffered our punishment.
The Abelardian model
The subjective Abelardian model places the emphasis on the example of Jesus. The cross is a demonstration of God's love; and Jesus provides us with a perfect pattern for moral development. This model became dominant in the nineteenth century with the advent of rationalism and the accompanying scepticism of the miraculous.
The "classic" Christus victor model
This classic model was dominant for the first thousand years of Christianity. In it God is the reconciler and the reconciled: God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself. As in the Anselmian model humanity is in a desperate situation, they cannot save themselves. Unlike the Anselmian model the force from which humanity needs deliverance is not God's wrath, rather the bondage of demonic forces. Jesus' victorious conflict on the cross over the devil and his cohorts brings a new state of affairs: God is now reconciled with his creation.
Each view contains some grain of truth. The Anselmian view on its own is far too exclusively individualistic: emphasis is placed on personal sin but the presence of structural evil (e.g. sexism, racism, exploitation of the planet) are ignored. The Christus victor model is required to remedy this deficiency. The powers that lie at the heart of much of the structural sin are defeated by the cross on this model; thus enabling structural disobedience to be confronted. This view is also far too anthropocentric; again this deficiency is remedied by the Christus victor model: this provides theological justification for a cosmic reconciliation. Another deficiency in the Anselmian view is that it underestimates Jesus' life and ministry - this is the strength of the Abelardian view. Although taken alone the Abelardian view fails to deal adequately with the presence of evil (personal or structural).
None of the above theological views should be rejected they are all to varying degrees biblical (Christus victor more so and the Abelardian least so). However, it seems that neither view does justice to the corporate nature of the death of Christ: in Christ we all died, in Christ the cosmos is reconciled. Ultimately the cross is a paradox: in apparent defeat victory is completed; humanity in accepting the once-for-all death of Jesus is redeemed, the penalty paid, and creation can be once more reconciled to God It is fully appropriate that the cross has become the symbol of Christianity.