Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus

  1. Review

    The author is Professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Convinced that “One of the great mistakes of Christian theology has been our attempt to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus apart from his life,” he wrote his book to confront and challenge this separation. Evidence of the mistake is clear in the contemporary church when you hear, out of context, such phrases as “Christ died for you,” and “Accept Christ as your personal Savior.” He points out that the first followers of Jesus generally did not understand the death and resurrection apart from his life. In the four Gospels, the death/resurrection of Jesus is portrayed as the consequence of his life, what he said and what he did. In the concluding chapter of his book, the author laments that “for most of us who assemble in the name of Jesus, he is dead. His words and deeds mean little to us, if anything at all. We do not look to Jesus for a way of life, but for salvation. ‘He died that we might live.’ Indeed. it seems we have to kill him in order that we might live whatever lives our power and privilege allow us to live. When real life is at stake, most of us will take personal salvation over the empire of God any day.”

    Countering the mistake of Christian theology, he focuses on three early Christian understandings of the death of Jesus: as “Victim,” as “Martyr,” and as “Sacrifice.” He writes, “I hope to show that these three strands, though distinct, work together to point the would-be followers of Jesus back to his life – to his words, his deeds, and his fate – as a life to be embraced as the life, and a fate to call one’s own.”

    Patterson stresses that before we can deal with these responses to the death of Jesus we must be clear about who killed Jesus and why. When Jesus came into Galilee he announced that the empire of God was at hand. The established empire was The Pax Romana, maintained by violence. It was politically, economically and socially structured as a pyramid of patronage, the wealthy and powerful at the top and the poor and dispossessed at the bottom, held together by “loyalty, piety and Roman family values.” The empire of God, described and demonstrated by Jesus, was structured horizontally, as a “open table” where all people are equally welcome, including expendable people like fishermen, prostitutes, lepers, beggars, the sick and the disabled. Soon, the empire of God was seen as subversive of the empire of Caesar.

    After several years of activity Jesus was charged with sedition against the Roman state and crucified in Jerusalem, probably around Passover, on order of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect. In the light of what Jesus had said and done and what he meant to them, the first followers of Jesus were impelled to find meaning in the fact that he was a victim of empire. Reflecting on the this understanding of Jesus, Patterson suggests that the death of Jesus as victim could hold meaning for us still, “if we have the courage to face it – and to face the consequences of realizing how inhospitable the world remains to Jesus’ vision of God’s empire.”

    The second response to the crucifixion by the early followers of Jesus was to understand him as Martyr, meaning “someone whose death in the face of great opposition becomes a witness to others.” Jewish history contained stories of heroes who, living under the tyranny of foreign rule, were faithful to God in spite of persecution and the threat of death. They were considered “God’s suffering servants, God’s righteous ones.” Also in the Hellenistic world, there were stories of those who died “nobly, with unflinching bravery and loyalty” for their principles. In this context, the early followers of Jesus saw that Jesus was not only a victim, but a martyr who “died willingly, nobly, for a cause.” Patterson traces the concept of Jesus as martyr in some of the letters of St. Paul and in the Gospels according to Mark and John. There he finds the theme that “Jesus died for God’s new empire, that new way of being in the world he tried to exemplify in his words and deeds.” He ends this section with this reflection: “To speak of Jesus as martyr is to consider the values, ideas, and principles he lived and died for, and the God who comes to life in them, and to ask what if would take to bring that God to life again in lives we might live. What would it cost to do this? Would it be worth it? Would it be worth everything?”

    The third response was to understand the death of Jesus as a sacrifice. Pointing out that sacrifice is not a familiar metaphor in our culture, he informs us that in the world of Christian origins, sacrifice was “ubiquitous.” In both Jewish and Hellenistic cities a sacrifice was a public event of the slaughtering of an animal as an offering to the gods and as a feast of meat which was a sign of “one’s membership in a group, whether that be a family, a club, a city, or finally an empire.” Also in the Roman empire, when faced with a military, political or economic crisis, sometimes a human being was sacrificed. It was believed that the person, usually destitute or socially marginal, would ritually bear away whatever had offended the gods. Then there was, occasionally, a “person’s voluntary sacrifice on behalf of his or her people”. In the case of Jesus, he sacrificed himself in the cause of the empire of God.

    He then explores the understanding of “Jesus the Sacrifice” using the letters of St. Paul and the Gospel of Mark as sources. He emphasizes that to speak of the death of Jesus as the sacrifice is understand that his life was not taken from him, but offered voluntarily for the cause of the empire of God and in the hope that his death would create among his followers “a community who would be devoted to the same things to which Jesus devoted himself.”

    In an Epilogue, Patterson points out that resurrection was a belief in many ancient religions and that many prophets, martyrs and heroes were believed to have been resurrected. Consequently, the proclamation that Jesus has been resurrected would not be unique. In Jewish tradition, to say that God had raised someone from the dead meant that because he was faithful to God unto death he was vindicated by God. The problem that the followers of Jesus had was “believing that God would raise Jesus from the dead.” He was a victim, a martyr and had sacrificed his life, but “he was born a peasant and died a criminal.” He was a nobody. Patterson writes, “What is remarkable about the early Church resurrection proclamation was that it claimed Jesus had been raised from the dead – Jesus, not Caesar.”

    Patterson is convinced that the three ways of understanding the death of Jesus , as victim, martyr and sacrifice, were ways of calling attention to his life. He writes, “His death mattered to them because his life had mattered to them. They spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life, and reaffirmed their own commitment to the values and vision stamped into his life by his words and deeds.” This rethinking of the death and life of Jesus is a profound and audacious challenge to the contemporary church to hear once again the Good News of the vision of the empire of God which was “at hand” in the words and deeds of Jesus. Then perhaps, when “real life is at stake,” we will embrace our commitment to follow him, taking the vision of the empire of God over salvation any day.

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