Jesus_PhariseesWe Jesus-following Christians rightly enjoy discussing the purpose and significance of the death of Jesus in primarily christological, soteriological, and generally theological terms.

“Why did Jesus die?”

Our answer; “Why, to save us from our sins, of course.”

No disagreement there. Praise God for his incredible gift!

But there were also historical reasons why Jesus died that are not disconnected from the theological reasons, and those are the things I want to begin to discuss below (and get your input about as well).  I’d like to do this, as best as I can, from the perspective of the Pharisees in the days of Jesus. They would certainly answer the “Why did Jesus have to die?” question much differently.

To begin with, lets start with a Bible passage that every Pharisee would have had memorized, and would have used in his own understanding of faithfulness to YHWH with respect to the Pharisaic commitment to keeping Israel pure.

“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (Deut. 13:1-5, ESV, emphasis added).

There is a passage in Whiston’s translation of Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities which reads:

“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles” (para 18:3:63a).

Feldman has a slightly different translation of this passage that is still very “pro-Jesus,” which reads:

“[Jesus] was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks” (Bk. 18:3:63a).

But some scholars, like Bammel believe that there is good reason to see these translations as inaccurate, and to put them into a more negative light by removing what he believes are “Christian interpolations” that skew the reading to favor Jesus over and against the Pharisees.  If these were removed, he believes that the text would more accurately read:

“[Jesus] was a doer of strange deeds, and a deluder of the simple-minded. He led astray many Jews and Greeks” (Bammel, para. Jos Ant 18, 63–64).

According N.T. Wright in “Jesus and the Victory of God”

“this explains at a stroke something that otherwise remains problematic, namely, the mention of plots to kill Jesus. If, after all, he looked like [he was] leading a whole town astray, then Deuteronomy 13:12–18 would come into play; it has been suggested that this was why several towns refused to countenance his teaching, since to do so would court disaster for them as well as for him” (p. 441).

The Pharisaic charge that Jesus was a magician who was intent on deceiving people seems to be exactly what the Gospel writers are communicating (cf. Mt. 9:34, 10:25, 12:24-27, 27:63; Lk. 23:2, 5, 14; Jn. 7:12-47, 10:19-21).

If the Pharisees truly believed that Jesus was a demon-possessed liar, in league with Satan to fabricate miracles in order to attempt to lead Israel astray, then the questions about why they wanted to kill Jesus can be answered by looking at the words of Moses, to whom they claimed to be unwaveringly dedicated (cf. Deut. 13:1-5, 12-16).

From the perspective of the Pharisees (and the words of Moses himself), Jesus’ miracles were not enough to satisfy their questions about his claim to be a prophet, and they certainly didn’t indicate that he was the promised Messiah.  For them, he needed to reinforce their sense of dedication to Israel’s God, which meant, of course, that he needed to uphold their traditions.  Those traditions were given to them by generation after generation of God-fearing sons of Abraham. For them, to disregard the tradition was to disregard the law behind it, Moses to whom the law was given, and ultimately, God who gave the law to Moses in the first place.

Therefore, with respect to Jesus, it was their moment in time to be the faithful men of Israel, and the unwavering guardians of the truth. Their actions toward Jesus would either tie them to their faithful ancestors (and the price that they paid for their own faithfulness to God in generations past), or show them to be moral cowards and unfaithful shepherds.

Jesus, according to their ironclad matrix, simply could not be a faithful Jew. His behavior, in the eyes of the Pharisees, could mean only one thing.  He was the kind of person Moses warned them about in Deut. 13.  They knew it. If ever there was a text for a time, this was it.

Here before them was a miracle-working deceiver who would lead them astray if he was allowed to continue in his deception.  They had one divinely given responsibility, in light of Moses’ instruction to their fathers.  They had a moral responsibility to kill Jesus as a deceiving false prophet, and a Biblical mandate to protect Israel from the evil that he would bring upon them if they listened to him.

In John’s gospel, the Pharisees play a central role in the difficult strategy of dealing with Jesus as a false prophet:

“So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (Jn. 11:47-48, ESV).

Two problems are laid out here: (a) Jesus is known as a man who could perform signs, and could therefore sway the people to believe him, and (b) their failure to deal with Jesus would bring the wrath of Rome upon them and threaten their national identity.

Thus, the only solution was to destroy Jesus by dealing with both groups.  They would need to enable the Jews who were following Jesus to turn and reject him as a false prophet, and Rome would need to be the instrument of his death, so he would need to be accused of breaking both Jewish and Roman law.

This seems to be exactly how the scenario is played out in Jn. 18:28-19:16.  Within the scope of John’s narrative, the Jews remind Pilate that they are not allowed to exercise capital punishment under Roman law (cf. Jn. 18:31, 19:7).  As far as the Pharisees were concerned, Jesus needed to die the death of a false prophet as an object lesson for Israel, but the instrument of his death needed to be Rome in accordance with Roman law.

The Pharisees’ role in the death of Jesus was to work within the structures of the Law of Moses for dealing with false prophets, and within the structures of Roman law for ensuring that Jesus received a false prophet’s demise: Death.  From everything written about these two strategies in the Gospels, this is exactly what happened.

From the Pharisees’ perspective, Jesus died the death of a deceiver of Israel, and they faithfully ensured that it happened.  Whether they were vindicated in their conclusions about Jesus, or whether Jesus was vindicated in his claims to be Messiah, the Son of God, is the introductory question for an entirely separate post on the resurrection.

On a final note, how does your reading of this angle on the reason Jesus died inform your understanding of the internecine fight over Jesus as Messiah we’ve been engaged in for 2,000 years with the descendants of the Pharisees who continue to reject Jesus?

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