Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Crucifixion of Jesus According to the Epistles

As I discussed in my previous post, the writers of the epistles don't seem to know anything about the gospels. The Epistle Jesus didn't perform miracles, didn't preach, and didn't exist in any specific place or time. The only detail about the life of Jesus which is shared by the epistles and the gospels is the fact that Jesus was crucified. But do the epistles and gospels portray the crucifixion of Jesus in the same way?

For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men. (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15)

The above passage says the Jews killed Jesus, however most scholars dismiss this passage as a later interpolation. It was not uncommon for scribes to make insertions or deletions from scripture before the Bible obtained its final form. There are three reasons scholars believe this passage was an interpolation. First, most scholars interpret the passage in verse 16 which says "the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost" as a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem which happened after Paul's death. Second, such vehement anti-Semitism is uncharacteristic of Paul. Third, in Romans 11 Paul again speaks of Jews killing their own prophets without mentioning Jesus. Therefore, this sole reference to the Jews killing Jesus was likely inserted by someone else later on.

I give thee charge in the sight of God, who quickeneth all things, and before Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession. (1 Timothy 6:13)

Most scholars agree 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, the Pastoral Epistles, were not written by Paul since they don't match his writing style or his teachings. Apocalyptic expectation was on the wane when the Pastorals were written unlike during Paul's time. Since it was actually written in the second century, this passage doesn't contradict the mythicists' hypothesis that a historical Jesus was unknown before the gospels. However, there's good reason to believe that this too was an interpolation. (See the article titled "Who Crucified Jesus" at for more.)

We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Corinthians 2:7-8)

The phrase ton archonton tou aionos toutou which the King James Bible translates as "the princes of this world" is more correctly translated as "the rulers of this age." As Earl Doherty says on the Jesus Puzzle website (linked to above),
"In both pagan and Jewish parlance, the word archontes could be used to refer to earthly rulers and those in authority (as in Romans 13:3). But it is also, along with several others like it, a technical term for the spirit forces, the "powers and authorities" who rule the lowest level of the heavenly world and who exercise authority over the events and fate (usually cruel) of the earth, its nations and individuals. That invisible powers, mostly evil, were at work behind earthly phenomena was a widely held belief in Hellenistic times, including among Jews, and it was shared by Christianity."
While there hasn't been a scholarly consensus as to what Paul means in this passage, many scholars now believe he is actually referring to Christ's crucifixion by demons which matches the spiritual nature in which Paul talks about Jesus in the rest of the epistles much better than a gospel interpretation. While Ephesians probably wasn't written by Paul, it does contain a similar idea:

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Ephesians 6:12)

If I may quote from Earl Doherty again:
"Scholars who balk at this interpretation of Paul's words and declare that he simply means the earthly powers which the Gospels specify (e.g., Anchor Bible, p.164), are bucking even ancient opinion. Ignatius uses the term archon in a thoroughly angelic sense (Smyrneans 6:1). Origen regarded the archonton of 2:8 as evil spiritual beings, and so did the gnostic Marcion."
An early Christian text called the Ascension of Isaiah gives us a more clear idea of what Paul means when he speaks of the crucifixion of Jesus. In this text, Isaiah is given a vision of Christ descending down through the seven heavens to the lowest sphere of heaven ruled over by Satan.

The Lord will descend into the world in the last days, he who is to be called Christ after he has descended and become like you in form, and they will think that he is flesh and a man. And the god of that world will stretch out his hand against the Son, and they will lay their hands upon him and hang him upon a tree, not knowing who he is. And thus his descent, as you will see, will be concealed from the heavens, so that it will not be known who he is. And when he has plundered the angel of death, he will rise on the third day and will remain in the world for 545 days. And then many of the righteous will ascend with him. (Ascension of Isaiah 9:13-17)

Historicists point out that the Ascension of Isaiah contains a section (11:2-22) which describes Jesus' life on earth. However, this passage is found in only the Ethiopic text and was likely added on later.

So, was Jesus crucified by the Jews, by Pilate, or by Satan? If we don't read the gospels into the epistles and we agree with most scholars that the references to the Jews and Pilate are later interpolations, we're left with Christ being crucified by the spiritual "rulers of this age." However, The Epistle to the Hebrews presents us with a different way in which Christ's sacrifice could have been made.

Hebrews is a thoroughly Platonic document. The idea that everything on earth is a corrupt copy of the perfect heaven above infuses the document. In Hebrews, Christ doesn't make his sacrifice on earth, but rather above in the incorruptible heavenly realm. He offers himself as a sacrifice to God in the same way priests offer animal sacrifices to God in the Old Testament, by shedding blood in the outer temple and bringing it into the inner temple. However, while the priests' sacrifices are imperfect and have to be repeated, Christ's perfect sacrifice needs to be done only once.

Not only is there no reference to a historical Jesus in Hebrews, there is an explicit statement that Jesus has never been on earth:

For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law. (Hebrews 8:4)

In the original Greek, there is no question that the writer of Hebrews means Jesus was never on earth. Historicists attempt to twist the translation to mean that Jesus is not on earth now, or Jesus is not on earth still, but such translations are not indicated by the text. According to Hebrews, Jesus never existed on earth.

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