The Death of Jesus in Contemporary Life-of-Jesus Research -- By: James P. Sweeney

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 24:2 (Fall 2003)
Article: The Death of Jesus in Contemporary Life-of-Jesus Research
Author: James P. Sweeney


The Death of Jesus in Contemporary
Life-of-Jesus Research

James P. Sweeney

James P. Sweeney is Interim Pastoral Assistant at Immanuel Church in Chelmsford, Massachusetts.

I. Introduction

The death of Jesus is one of the best-attested events of antiquity. First, it is widely attested in all strands of the NT.1 Second, it is attested in non-canonical Jewish and Roman sources.2 On the basis of

such attestation, almost all scholars of nearly all persuasions justifiably consider the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion to be beyond historical doubt.3 Joachim Jeremias contends that the death of Jesus “may be taken to be historically certain.”4 E. P. Sanders lists Jesus’ crucifixion as one of several facts about Jesus’ career and its aftermath that can be known “beyond doubt.”5 So foundational is Jesus’ death that Scot McKnight presents it as a necessary conclusion to which historical reconstruction of Jesus’ life and teaching must lead: “The Jesus constructed by historians must be a Jesus who is crucifiable.”6

The recognized factuality of Jesus’ death, however, has led to very differing paths of pursuit. Traditional Christian theologians have customarily pursued the theological implications of Jesus’ death. This pathway has led to detailed discussion about the nature and scope of Christ’s atonement.7 Beginning with the “original

quest,” on the other hand, prominent strands of critical Life-of-Jesus Research (Leben-Jesu-Forschung), attempting to distance itself from the “bias” of Christian theology,8 have generally pursued “purely historical” reason(s) as to why Jesus was put to death. If past discussion may be taken as instructive, however, it has not proven possible in practice to bracket theology when one is attempting a historical reconstruction of the life of Jesus.9 In no case has this been more clearly exemplified than in the approaches to the reason(s) for his death.

II. Why Jesus was Crucified: An Orientation to
“Third” Quest Discussion

Since the sto...

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