Presentation given to the Historical Jesus Section at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature

November 24, 2019

San Diego, California

Ever since the “historical Jesus” became an object of scholarly study, but especially since the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung in 1906, the question of why Jesus made his final and fateful trip to Jerusalem has been intensely debated among biblical scholars and historians.[1] All four Gospels claim that Jesus knew before he went up to Jerusalem that he would be put to death there at the instigation of the Jewish religious authorities, yet they never mention him explaining why he had decided to go there, outside of claiming that the Scriptures had to be fulfilled. Furthermore, although they all claim that Jesus believed that he would attain some benefit for others through his death, the phrases and formulas they use to refer to what he would obtain for others are extremely brief, vague, and ambiguous, making it possible to read back into them all sorts of different ideas.[2]

For reasons I have shared elsewhere, I do not believe that Jesus went to Jerusalem because he needed to suffer and die in order to make atonement for the sins of the world or undergo the messianic tribulation or woes on behalf of others or in their place.[3] I would instead argue that his motive had to do with the aims he had throughout his ministry. Of course, precisely what those aims were is also the subject of a great deal of debate among scholars.[4] From my perspective, however, we need only look at certain aspects of Jesus’ ministry that virtually all scholars accept as historical in order to discern in general terms his aims.

Few would doubt that Jesus dedicated much of his ministry to teaching the Jewish inhabitants of Galilee in general as well as one or more groups of μαθηταί or disciples. Much of his teaching centered on the reign of God, although precisely what he understood by this phrase is another matter of intense debate. Whatever that understanding was, however, it stood in stark contrast and even opposition to the social, political, economic, and religious realities Jesus encountered around him.[5] The content of his teaching also indicates that he sought to bring people to follow him in living in a certain way, and that this would result in a group, community, movement, or even system that would represent an alternative to the status quo of his day.[6]

In particular, Jesus taught that following him involved loving and serving God by loving and serving others in the way that he did, actively seeking what would enable all to experience the well-being and wholeness God desired for them.[7] Jesus is also said to have stressed the need to have faith in God and trust fully in him so as be able to live without fear.[8] These two points are intimately related to one another. The reason for this is that people will not reach out in love to others to seek their well-being if they fear that they will suffer in some way as a result or are so preoccupied about their own needs that they cannot concern themselves with the needs of others.

In a context of injustice and oppression such as that which existed in Galilee under the Romans and those who collaborated with them—including especially the high-priestly family and other Jews who occupied positions of power and authority as a result of their willingness to cater to Roman interests—, love for those who suffer injustice and oppression must involve not only offering them help, guidance, and support, but also unmasking, denouncing, resisting, and opposing the systems, structures, powers, ideologies, and people responsible for the injustices and evils to which they are subjected.[9] Because of the risks and dangers that this involves, one must take certain precautions to protect oneself, speaking and acting prudently and at times cryptically, and keeping one’s distance from those who might see one as a threat to their interests and thus seek to do one harm.[10]

There are many good reasons to believe that Jesus was convinced that he had a special and unique authority from God to speak and act in his name, and that he had been sent and commissioned by God to carry out a task that was equally special and unique.[11] Jesus called on others not merely to follow his teachings or example but to follow him, and equated this with doing God’s will.[12] At the same time, he himself followed and obeyed no one but the God whom he called “Abba.”[13]

Jesus was also known as one who performed exorcisms and healings.[14] The fact that the Gospels never speak of Jesus receiving money or any other type of favor or benefit in exchange for helping others in these ways suggests that his primary interest was the well-being of others.[15] Even if he desired to bring more people to believe in him as God’s special representative and perhaps gain fame or renown for himself, the overall character of his ministry would seem to indicate that the reason for this was simply his desire that more people might come to receive the healing and well-being God offered to all through him.

There are no good reasons to doubt that Jesus’ ministry was itinerant and that a number of his disciples and followers traveled with him. While the main reason for this itinerancy was probably to reach out to as many people as possible, Jesus may also have wished to remain out of the grasp of any who might seek to silence him by arresting him or doing him violence.[16]

According to the Synoptics, Jesus not only had some of his disciples and followers travel alongside of him at times but also sent them out to other places to practice carrying out a ministry similar to his own (Mark 6:7-13; Matt 10:1-15; Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-17). Besides desiring to expand the scope of his ministry, Jesus seems to have wanted them to learn to trust more fully in God and thus enable them to overcome any fears that might hinder them from dedicating themselves to such a ministry. One way to accomplish that objective would be to prohibit them from taking any provisions along with them, since then they would have no choice but to depend solely on God and others.[17]

Although according to Jesus, the God he proclaimed was the same God of Israel of whom the Hebrew Scriptures spoke and in whom his fellow Israelites and Jews believed, both Jesus and those who heard him also believed that he was proclaiming a God who was different from the God of Israel whom others served and worshiped, including especially those who identified with the predominant system. This generated controversy, conflict, and animosity toward Jesus. Apparently, some even accused him of serving Beelzebub or Satan, “the prince of demons” (Matt 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15). Independently of who his opponents or adversaries were, they did not believe in the God of Jesus, nor did Jesus believe in their God.[18] The God of Jesus had sent him to do what he was doing; the God of his critics had not, and was even strongly opposed to Jesus. The God of Jesus willed that Jesus heal on the Sabbath, at times declare people’s sins forgiven, and often associate, eat, and drink with outcasts and persons commonly regarded as “sinners”; in contrast, the God of those who opposed Jesus did not want Jesus to do things such as these, and thus regarded him not only as a sinner but also as a deceiver who was misleading others.[19] Many would have considered Jesus’ God to be not only false but subversive as well, since his teaching and practice had political, social, and economic implications and not merely religious ones.[20]

According to all of the Gospels, almost from the start of Jesus’ ministry there were people who wanted to silence him by having him arrested or killed. Chief among these were certain leaders from among the people. It is not entirely clear who all of these leaders were and how they related to the political and religious authorities in Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem. As time went on, the desire to silence Jesus must have intensified, independently of the degree of success that he had. As long as Jesus persisted in saying and doing things that alienated and angered some of the people and their leaders, both popularity and rejection would have posed problems for him and put his life in greater risk. If the number of his followers increased, opposition to him would have increased as well. And even if he was not gaining many followers, the fact that his itinerant ministry brought him constantly into contact with more and more people throughout the land would have led to more and more critics and adversaries condemning his polarizing message and irately accusing him of proclaiming a false God. All four of the Gospels mention moments when Jesus withdrew from the public eye and went into seclusion, and among his reasons for doing so must have been a concern for his own safety and that of his followers in the face of the conflicts generated by his ministry and possible reprisals on the part of those who wished to see him silenced.

The Gospel accounts are ambiguous as to how long Jesus’ ministry lasted, but it seems safe to conclude that it was at least a good part of one year and at most several years.[21] Independently of the extent to which he believed that he had succeeded or failed, however, sooner or later Jesus must have reached the conclusion that he had gone as far as he could in accomplishing his aims both among the people in general as well as among his disciples and followers in the areas in which he had been active, particularly in Galilee.

Whenever he reached this point, Jesus would have had several options open to him, yet each of them would have been problematic for different reasons. He might put an end to his ministry, yet that would mean giving up on the aims he had worked so hard to accomplish and seeing them remain unfulfilled. That was hardly an option. If he settled down in a fixed location to continue to carry on his ministry and prepare disciples from there, he would probably not be able to accomplish much more than he already had, and his message would no longer be getting out to people in other places in the same way. This might also be dangerous, since he would become an easy target for any who wished to silence him. He could also go to some other region to carry on with his itinerant ministry there, yet there were several reasons not to do so. He and his disciples may have been exhausted from the travel and constant uncertainties. Outside of Galilee and Perea, the only major concentration of Jews in Palestine was in Judea, yet if those who lived in Judea related more favorably to the Jerusalem (and/or Roman) authorities than those in Galilee did, he may have felt that his message would not be well-received there, especially if there were strong prejudices against Galileans.[22] If he went to minister among non-Jews outside of Palestine, most of whom would have been polytheistic, he could hardly expect to accomplish much, especially if his message revolved around the fulfillment of promises that the God he proclaimed had made to Israel. Such a message would not be favorably received in Samaria either. And simply to keep doing what he had been doing was not only pointless but dangerous. Sooner or later, someone was going to act to silence him.

Furthermore, if both Jesus and others believed that his life was in danger, his ongoing itinerancy could be interpreted as being motivated by fear, as if he were constantly on the run to avoid confronting his adversaries face-to-face or falling into their hands. The type of love, service, and solidarity he sought to bring about in others depended on their being able to live and act with conviction and resolve rather than fear and apprehension, and at times their willingness to give up anything on behalf of others, including their life or that which they held most precious. How could he teach and expect others to live in that way if it appeared that he himself was being held captive by fear, attempting to avoid at all costs the consequences of his words and actions? How could he ask others to believe in something that even he did not apparently believe in fully? Jesus could tell his disciples as much as he wanted that they needed to trust in God and not be afraid in an effort to bring them to reach out to others in love to live in solidarity with them, but his words would remain empty and would never be enough if he himself was not willing to endure the consequences of doing the same.

If Jesus wanted to accomplish his aims, then, there was only one road left to take: the one that led to Jerusalem. There Jesus himself could demonstrate what it meant to trust fully in God and act freely without fear so as to be willing to stand up to anyone, including even the highest authorities in the land, and speak out against the injustices and oppression for which they were largely responsible. And because those injustices were being committed and justified in the name of the God of Israel by those who claimed to be his designated spokespersons and representatives and on that basis demanded that all submit obediently to them, if Jesus wished to convince others that the true God of Israel was the God he proclaimed and not the God they did, he had to confront those authorities in Jerusalem, at the place that constituted their base of power and legitimated that power: the temple.[23]

Of course, Jesus must have known that this would mean being arrested at some point and perhaps even put to death.[24] According to Luke 13:31-33, as he was traveling to Jerusalem, Jesus was warned that Herod was seeking to kill him. He responded by calling Herod a fox (or vixen) and insisting that nothing—including the threat of a violent death—could dissuade him from following to its very end the path he had chosen. His affirmation that no prophet could perish or be killed outside of Jerusalem can be understood in the sense that, for his death to be truly prophetic in the way that his ministry had been, it had to take place in Jerusalem. In other words, if he was going to die, it would not be in some remote corner of Galilee at the hands of some petty authority or hireling paid to assassinate him. The impact that such a death would have on his followers and the general population could never even come close to the impact of a death inflicted on him by the highest and most powerful authorities in the land, especially if it was the result of his questioning openly and audaciously their authority at the very heart and soul of their “empire within an empire,” from where they held sway not only over the Jewish population in Palestine but over Jews throughout the diaspora as well.

Jesus had a message that he wanted to proclaim to Israel and the world in obedience to the God who had sent him, the God he called “Abba”; and if that was to happen, not only did he have to go to Jerusalem, but he had to do so when the largest number of Jews would be congregated there: Passover. To proclaim his message there, he would have to pay a very high price. But only by paying that price could he hope for that message to spread throughout the land in a way that it had not done previously, not only because those who shared the news of his death would inevitably share as well the message that had been the cause of that death, but also because all would come to know that he was so convinced of the truth he had proclaimed that he was willing to endure anything for it, even a violent death. If sooner or later he was going to be killed one way or another for refusing to back down from what he was saying and doing, it would be Jesus rather than his enemies who would choose where and when that would happen.

Once in Jerusalem, therefore, Jesus determined to communicate his message loud and clear in front of as many people as possible, not only with his voice but with his actions. According to the Synoptics, the first thing he did when he arrived at Jerusalem was to enter into the temple to carry out a prophetic act of protest and condemnation there (Matt 21:1-13; Luke 19:29-45) or to survey the area in preparation for carrying out that act the next day (Mark 11:1-17).[25] He then continued to go out on to the temple court “day after day” to share publicly and undauntedly with all who would listen his teaching regarding the true God and his reign, as well as his denunciation of the false God in whose name many were oppressing others.[26] He persisted resolutely in these things, in effect daring the authorities to take action against him, until they could tolerate it no longer.  And when they finally intervened in an attempt to silence him for good, his hope was that the God who had sent him would in some way cause the opposite to happen, bringing all that he had said and done to reverberate loudly and obstreperously throughout the land. Whatever he expected to happen following his death, at the very least it included this.[27] If he were put to death, he trusted God that his voice would not be muffled but magnified.

In developing the argument just presented, I have intentionally avoided addressing questions such as how Jesus understood his relation to God, what he believed regarding the reign of God and the role he would play in it, the extent to which he knew what would happen to him in Jerusalem, and whether he believed that God would raise him from the dead shortly after his death. My reason for this is that I have sought to base my argument on affirmations widely accepted as historical by virtually all scholars who have researched the subject of the historical Jesus and in that way be able to make my argument stand independently of how one answers questions such as those just mentioned.

On the basis of this argument, I would like to draw two conclusions. First, as he went to Jerusalem and said and did the things that would ultimately lead to his death there, Jesus may have been uncertain as to how his disciples and followers would react to whatever might happen to him. Rather than being emboldened by his arrest and/or death, some or all of them might instead be intimidated and flee so as no longer to identify themselves as his disciples or followers. While several passages from the Gospels suggest that this might have happened,[28] they also provide indications that at least some of his disciples and followers would have remained faithful to him. In this case, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, his activity there, and his death in itself would have accomplished to some extent what Jesus had desired to see in his followers, namely, a firm trust in God that would enable them to overcome their fears and dedicate their lives to living in love and solidarity with one another and others, paying whatever price was necessary to bring others to do the same as well. And if his faithfulness unto death would not accomplish that, then nothing else would either.

Second, many doubts exist regarding precisely what happened between the time of Jesus’ arrest and his crucifixion. However, his first followers must have believed that, just as he had continued to teach openly and fearlessly at the temple rather than attempting to avoid arrest by hiding or fleeing, once he had been arrested, Jesus had not sought to avoid death by defending himself, begging for mercy, recanting, offering to stop speaking out, or agreeing to disband his group of followers. Nor had he resisted those who mistreated him and put him to death, insulted them, or called down God’s curses upon them. Had Jesus’ followers believed that he had done any of these things, they would have had no basis for proclaiming later that he had “given up his life” or offered himself up to God, since his actions would have indicated that he had not gone willingly to his death but had sought to save his life rather than giving it up. Instead, however, they were convinced that he had chosen to follow on the road he had taken all the way to its end.

Therefore, Jesus must have trusted that God would eventually bring to pass whatever he had intended to accomplish through Jesus and his ministry, whether by means of his death or in spite of it. On this basis, the few allusions to the salvific significance of Jesus’ death attributed to him in the Gospels are perfectly comprehensible and convey a meaning and purpose for his death that is entirely in line with what we have seen here. By giving up his life as a result of his dedication to serving others and proclaiming to them the truth, trusting fully in the God he called “Abba,” he would obtain in exchange the redemption of the “many” (Mark 10:45, Matt 20:28), since what he had done would bring many to trust fully in that same God as well so as to live without fear, uncompromising in their resolve to live and if necessary even die for what he had lived and died for. In that way, they would attain life, liberation, and wholeness both in this world and the world to come, not only for themselves but also for others who through their witness would be brought to take up their cross and follow Jesus as well, in spite of the cost.[29] In this way, the “many” would be redeemed from those who sought to hold them and others in slavery and bondage through fear and intimidation.

Jesus could also expect that his willingness to go up to Jerusalem and give up his life for what he had proclaimed regarding God and God’s reign might lay the basis for a new or renewed covenant, in which many would live as members of the community established through his death and stamped forever by the same unyielding love for all that he had shown in life and death.  It would be this, rather than the Mosaic law alone, that would define them and the covenant of which he spoke and enable them to enjoy God’s forgiveness and acceptance as well (Matt 26:28). The phrase Matthew attributes to Jesus, “This is my blood of the covenant” — or, as an Aramaism, “the blood of my covenant” —, “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” should not be understood in the sense that Jesus’ death in itself would obtain the forgiveness of sins, but rather in the sense that, by giving up his life, Jesus would bring into existence a covenant in which the forgiveness of sins would be given to all those who lived as Jesus’ followers under that covenant, together with the life of unconditional love that would constitute the basis for that forgiveness.

As the parable of the wicked tenants implies, his death at the hands of the unjust and corrupt authorities might also lead God finally to take action against them, since they had filled up the measure of their sins by putting to death the last and greatest of the spokespersons that God had sent them (Mark 12:1-12; Matt 21:33-46; 23:29-36).[30] In addition, in fulfillment of Psalm 118:22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” Jesus’ faithfulness unto death to the task given him would also lay the foundation and even constitute the cornerstone of a new construction, namely, the alternative community composed of those who would follow Jesus as Lord so as to live out faithfully everything he had taught and embodied.[31]

Jesus must have had all of these things in mind when he spoke of giving up his body and shedding his blood for others (Luke 22:19-20), laying down his life for his friends (John 15:13), and obtaining the redemption of many in exchange for the surrender of his life. By being faithful to the end to the task his Father had given him, many would be brought to follow him in living and loving without fear, refusing to let the threat of persecution, violence, and death dissuade them from pursuing the same aims that Jesus had in life and death out of love for all, no matter what the cost.[32]


Of course, according to all four of the canonical Gospels, Jesus hoped and expected that God his Father would not only raise him from the dead but also exalt him to heaven after he had been put to death. If so, as he went to his death, in his heart he must have expressed to God his desire and petition that he might be raised and exalted as Lord, not merely for his own sake, but for the sake of all those whose transformation and salvation he had sought in life and death. Just as he had lived for others in the past, he would want to continue to live for others once raised and exalted as their Lord, remaining active from heaven in various ways to continue and some day consummate his work on their behalf. In this sense, like his life, his death would be “for others” in that it would enable him to be glorified so as to bring about the salvation of all who would come to acknowledge and confess him as Lord. This was something he wanted them to do, not for his sake, but for theirs. By allowing him to be their Lord in the way he desired, living under his loving lordship as members of the new covenant community whose primary characteristic would be that same love, they would come to experience true life not only in the age to come but to some extent in the present age as well. In fact, any who were not committed to loving others and giving their lives for others daily in the way that Jesus had could not truly call him “Lord” or rightly claim to form part of his community of followers, since their refusal to love others with his same love would demonstrate that they did not actually consider him their Lord and were not living as his followers.

All of this is what Jesus had obtained through his faithfulness unto death to the task his Father had given him of forming a community in which all would share his same dedication and commitment to God and one another. As Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane demonstrates, Jesus had never wanted to die, and much less to die the horrific death of a criminal on a Roman cross (Mark 14:32-39). Who could ever desire such a thing? Yet Jesus knew that only by embracing that death rather than fleeing from it or attempting to avoid it could he make such a community possible and thereby attain the salvation of all who would come to live as members of that community.

When his first followers came to affirm that Jesus had “died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3; Gal 1:4), they did not mean that Jesus’ death had made it possible for God to forgive them their sins, as if it had been impossible for God to do so without Jesus’ death or blood. Rather, what they meant was that Jesus had died as a result of his efforts to bring others to put away the sinful behavior and actions that destroyed their lives and those of others and instead live in his same love. By giving up his life in the way that he had, Jesus had accomplished that objective: those who came to form part of his community of followers were enabled to put away their sins and live as a “new creation,” putting to death their old persons so as to become new persons in him (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Eph 4:22-24). In that sense, when they came to faith and were baptized, thereby manifesting their commitment to live as Jesus’ followers, it might be said that they had died and been crucified and buried with him, since the person they had been previously ceased to exist in order to be replaced by a new person who now lived for God and others as Jesus did (Rom 6:1-14; Gal 2:19-20; 6:14). It was not only Jesus and his willingness to die that had made these things possible, but also God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, whom he gave through Jesus.

Of course, it could also be said that through his death Jesus had obtained the forgiveness of sins for others, namely, all those who would come to live under him as Lord. His disciples, and perhaps Jesus himself, would have understood Jesus’ death as an implicit petition to God that God receive favorably and overlook the sins of all those who would come to live as members of his community of followers, in spite of the fact that in the present world they would never be able to live entirely free of sin, no matter how hard they tried. In effect, God would have been understood to have responded “Yes!” to Jesus’ petition once and for all time when he raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him, thereby declaring that he would indeed accept and forgive the sins of all who would come to live in faith, trust, and love under Jesus as their Lord. In this sense as well, then, it would be said that Jesus had died for others and for their sins. It could also be said that he had died for all, since he had given up his life seeking that all people everywhere be enabled to attain true life through him.

Because those who would live under Jesus’ lordship would come to live in peace, friendship, and communion both with God and with one another, his followers could also affirm that through his death Jesus had reconciled them to God and others (Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:18-21; Eph 2:15-16; Col 1:21-23). Once again, however, this was not because Jesus’ death had brought about some change in God, making it possible for him to accept sinners whom his holiness had previously prevented him from accepting. Instead, the idea of Jesus’ followers was that, through his willingness to give up his life so that the type of community he and his Father had envisioned from the start might come into existence — that is, a community in which all would be fully committed to loving God and others with their whole heart, soul, mind, and strength so as to be “conformed to the image of his Son” —,  Jesus had made their reconciliation with God and one another a reality (Mark 12:30; Rom 8:29).

If Jesus expected that following his death God would raise and exalt him as Lord for others, he would have understood his death as being “for others” and “for their sins” in all of these senses. By giving up his life out of love for God and others so that everything that God desired for the human beings he loved might come to pass, Jesus had attained all that he and his Father had sought. Had Jesus instead attempted to save or preserve his life in the face of a violent death, putting an end to his activity on behalf of others because he was afraid to suffer and die, none of the things that he and his Father had given up so much to bring about would have become a reality.

In fact, no matter what meaning Jesus had ascribed to his death prior to his arrest and crucifixion, in the days following his death and as a result of their experiences of the risen Jesus, his followers would have come to speak of his death in all of the ways mentioned above. From their perspective, by dying for everything that he had lived and worked for, he had obtained for others what he had always sought for them, namely, a new life characterized by a love that knew no limits or bounds and, like the love of Jesus himself, would stop at nothing. And by virtue of God’s resurrection and exaltation of Jesus, his followers could have full assurance that neither that life nor that love would ever come to an end, no matter what might happen to them in this world. They too, then, could live free of fear, following Jesus in dedicating their lives to seeking the well-being of all, no matter what the cost — even if that meant giving up their lives as Jesus had. Only in that way could they come to experience what true life is, both in this world and the world to come.[34]

David A. Brondos

Comunidad Teológica de México/Seminario Luterano Augsburgo

Mexico City, Mexico


[1] For Albert Schweitzer’s understanding of the reasons why Jesus went up to Jerusalem, see his two works The Mystery of the Kingdom of God (London: A & C Black, 1925), especially 226-36; The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (London: A & C Black, 1954), especially 384-97. The German originals of these works were published in 1901 and 1906 respectively.

[2] The passages to which I am referring are Matt 20:28; 26:26-28; Mark 10:45; 14:22-24; Luke 22:19; John 10:11-18; 12:31-33; 15:13.

[3] Peter Balla, for example, argues in favor of the idea that Jesus understood his death to be an expiatory sacrifice aimed at assuaging God’s wrath and enabling God to save sinful human beings (“What Did Jesus Think About His Approaching Death?,” in Jesus, Mark, and Q: The Teaching of Jesus in Its Earliest Records; ed. Michael Labahn and Andreas Schmidt; JSNTSup 214; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001, 239-258, at 252-53, 258). For arguments against this idea as well as the idea that Jesus sought to save his followers from undergoing the “messianic tribulations” or “messianic woes” by suffering and dying in their place or on their behalf, see my work (reference).

[4] For summaries of the diverse views among scholars regarding Jesus’ aims, see especially Mark Allan Powell, Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1998); David S. du Toit, “Redefining Jesus: Current Trends in Jesus Research,” in Jesus, Mark, and Q, ed. Labahn and Schmidt, 82-124.

[5] On the subversive nature of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign, see especially Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 102-3. Like Horsley, Andrew Chester rightly stresses the point that the social, economic, political and religious aspects of Jesus’ ministry were closely and inevitably intertwined (“The Jews of Judaea and Galilee,” in Early Christian Thought in its Jewish Context; ed. John Barclay and John Sweet; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 9-26, at 23).

[6] After discussing the “values that the Herodian market economy espoused, and the revision of the traditional religious categories of temple, Torah and land which it called for,” Sean Freyne proposes that “Jesus and his renewal movement are best understood as offering another set of values in addition to the two competing ones which we have seen within the social world of Antipas’ Galilee. Insofar as it might be expected to have had a widespread appeal in that particular setting, it was potentially threatening to both” (Galilee and Gospel: Collected Essays; WUNT 125; Tübingen: Mohr, 2000, 112).

[7] On the centrality of love for God and others in Jesus’ teaching, see especially James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Vol. 1 of Christianity in the Making (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 583-89, 609-11.

[8] This point is especially stressed by Dunn, who includes the references from the Gospels in which Jesus calls on others to have faith in God rather than living in fear (Jesus Remembered, 500-503, 549-53).

[9] Various perspectives exist among scholars regarding the political, social, and economic conditions that reigned in Galilee during Jesus’ day. There can scarcely be any doubt, however, that there was a great deal of injustice and that the people in general faced many hardships as a result of Roman rule over Galilee. For a variety of views on this subject, see Richard A. Horsley, Galilee: History, Politics, People (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995); Freyne, Galilee and Gospel, 195-96; James G. Crossley, Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 43-56; Ekkehard W. Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of its First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 15-95; Mark A. Chancey, “Disputed Issues in the Study of Cities, Villages, and the Economy in Jesus’ Galilee,” in The World of Jesus and the Early Church: Identity and Interpretation in the Early Communities of Faith, ed. Craig A. Evans (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 53-67.

[10] Crossley lists a number of reasons why Jesus may have avoided the cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias, yet the main reason almost certainly had to do with the fact that these cities were the “centers and symbols of political and economic domination” in Galilee (Why Christianity Happened, 45; see 44-49). I would agree with Richard Beaton that, by means of the withdrawals “away from the power centres” that Matthew attributes to Jesus in Matt 4:12, 12:15, and 14:13, “Jesus sidesteps potential threats to his life until the time is right for him to advance to Jerusalem to die (16.21)” (“Messiah and Justice: A Key to Matthew’s Use of Isaiah 42.1-4?,” JSNT 75 [1999], 5-23, at 18). I would argue, however, that this was not because Jesus’ ministry was “non-confrontational,” as Beaton affirms, but precisely because it was highly confrontational. In general, however, the confrontations mentioned in the Gospels are responses to Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry rather than anything that he initiated himself. While he did not back down from these confrontations, at times he felt it wise to withdraw before any might seek to do him harm. Furthermore, as I argue in this paper, Jesus was not waiting for the right time to die and did not go to Jerusalem for the purpose of dying. The only sense in which it can rightly be said that he went to Jerusalem to die is that he expected that his death would be the consequence of the things that he would do there.

[11] On the “surprising authority” that characterized Jesus’ teaching and actions, see Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 698-703.

[12] E. P. Sanders in particular has stressed that the idea of following Jesus was central to his proclamation and that at least at some moments during his ministry “Jesus put ‘following him’ above observing the law” (Jesus and Judaism; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985, 207; cf. 252-55, 301). N. T. Wright similarly notes: “Instead of being under Torah itself, the summons was now to be under Jesus” (Jesus and the Victory of God, Vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, 302).

[13] While recognizing that Jesus’ use of the term “Abba” was neither unique nor the familiar term children would use for “father” or “Daddy,” Wright is almost certainly correct in that this form of addressing God was “particularly distinctive of Jesus” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 148-49)

[14] As Wright has stressed, Jesus’ healing ministry had the purpose of “bestowing the gift of shalom, wholeness, to those who lacked it, bringing not only physical health but renewed membership in the people of YHWH” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 192).

[15] After examining possible motives for Jesus’ decision to carry out an itinerant ministry, David A. Fiensy rightly comments that “Jesus had no greed, no ambition, and no ulterior motives in his ministry” (Jesus the Galilean: Soundings in a First Century Life; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2007, 140; cf. 135-139).

[16] On this point, see especially Douglas Edwards, “The Socio-Economic and Cultural Ethos of the Lower Galilee in the First Century: Implications for the Nascent Jesus Movement,” in The Galilee in Late Antiquity, ed. Lee I. Levine (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 72-73. Gerd Theissen notes that Jesus’ journeys outside of Galilee could have been motivated by the same concern (“Jesus as an Itinerant Teacher: Reflections from Social History on Jesus’ Roles,” in Jesus Research: An International Perspective. The First Princeton-Prague Symposium on Jesus Research, Prague 2005; ed. James H. Charlesworth and Peter Pokorný; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009, 98-122, at 110).

[17] Sean Freyne rightly points out, in my opinion, that the members of Jesus’ core group were not themselves poor, but were to follow him in abandoning home, family, and possessions in order to adopt the “values of total trust in Yahweh’s gifts of food, shelter and the necessities of life” (Jesus, a Jewish Galilean: A New Reading of the Jesus Story; London: T & T Clark, 2004, 118). Of course, as Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz observe, to “trust in God’s providence” would involve depending “on settled followers of Jesus for support,” since it was primarily through these followers that God would provide for those traveling with Jesus (The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998, 216, 223).

[18] It can hardly be doubted that there were many authorities and leaders among the people who opposed Jesus and that Jesus constantly had to confront conflict and antagonism. For our purposes here, it matters little whether they were Pharisees, scribes, or others who had some type of authority over the population as a whole or certain parts of it. Furthermore, it must be remembered that political and religious authority went hand-in-hand.

[19] Because the law did not exist in a finalized form and was still fluent, to discuss whether Jesus was law-observant or whether certain actions of his were violations of the Mosaic law is anachronistic. From his perspective, he was observing the law faithfully and those who opposed and resisted him were not. From their perspective, it was Jesus who was not observing the law in the way that they interpreted it. John P. Meier has argued that “the very concept of Torah, even the written Torah of Moses, was still in flux at the time of Jesus,” and that “the Hebrew text of the Mosaic Law circulating in Palestine around the turn of the era contained variant readings. . . .” (“The Historical Jesus and the Historical Law: Some Problems within the Problem,” CBQ 65 (2003): 52-79, at 55-56). Those groups that held the law in esteem even felt free to rewrite certain laws to coincide with their practices, considered their own traditions normative, and claimed that “the written Law of Moses contained important commandments that, from our historical perspective, simply are not there in the text” (57-58). Richard Horsley similarly notes that different views and practices regarding the law existed not only in Judaism in general or Palestine, but in Galilee itself: “no standardized Jewish Torah or Law would have been known in Galilean villages at the time of Jesus’ mission and the development of early Jesus movements” (Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001, 156-60).

[20] Due to the intimate relation between religious beliefs and the political situation, it can hardly be doubted that Jesus’ aims were at least to some extent political, as Douglas E. Oakman has argued at length (The Political Aims of Jesus; Mineapolis: Fortress, 2012). For Oakman’s summary of views on this question, see 3-22.

[21] On the basis of their analysis of the evidence, Theissen and Merz conclude that “no certain statements can be made about the duration of Jesus’ public activity,” but propose that it may have begun any time between 26 and 29 CE and probably ended in 30 CE, the year in which they believe that his crucifixion took place (The Historical Jesus, 151-61).

[22] Theissen and Merz note that Galilee was a “Jewish enclave” that was “surrounded by Hellenistic city republics,” and that the only “areas whose inhabitants were adherents of the temple cult in Jerusalem” were Galilee, Judea, and Perea (The Historical Jesus, 169-70). When Jesus did go into the rural territories of the Hellenistic city states surrounding Galilee, it was “not to gain Gentiles for his message” but to address “the Jewish minorities living there” (171). Theissen and Merz also mention the prejudices against Galileans in Jerusalem and Judea (176). Horsley rightly observes that “Roman imperial rule in Judea worked through the high-priestly rulers in the Jerusalem Temple. . . .” (Jesus and Empire, 43). Similarly, Dale B. Martin comments: “The only Jewish authorities who had any real power in Judea under Pontius Pilate were the high priests. Jesus may have concentrated on opposition to that class precisely because they were the clients of the Romans. . . .” (“Jesus in Jerusalem: Not Armed and Dangerous,” JSNT 37 [2014], 3-24, at 14).

[23] As Jewish scholar Eyal Regev has observed, “From a political perspective, the Jerusalem Temple was a Roman temple. The high priest was nominated by the Roman authorities (in 6-41 CE); the high priestly vestments of the Day of Atonement ritual were held by the Roman governor; a daily sacrifice was dedicated for the sake of the Emperor (instead of the conventional pagan imperial cult); and [the] Roman army was stationed in the Antonia watching the temple (Acts 21:30-37). Indeed, the Romans regarded the temple as the symbolic center for their dominion in Judea, quite like their use of the imperial cult in other provinces, but even more so due to the central role of the temple in ancient Judaism (and in the diaspora). Proclamations about its coming destruction or an act against its status quo were taken as attempting to disturb Roman patronage” (“The Trial of Jesus and the Temple: Sadducean and Roman Perspectives,” in Soundings in the Religion of Jesus: Perspectives and Methods in Jewish and Christian Scholarship; ed. Bruce Chilton, Anthony Le Donne, and Jacob Neusner; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, 105).

[24] On the discussions regarding the likelihood that Jesus anticipated his death in Jerusalem and the significance that he may have ascribed to his death, see especially Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 796-818; Alexander J. M. Wedderburn, The Death of Jesus: Some Reflections on Jesus-Traditions and Paul (WUNT 299; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 47-66.

[25] Even if Jesus never actually carried out the violent actions attributed to him at the temple, as some have argued (e.g., David Seeley, “Jesus’ Temple Act,” CBQ 55 [1993], 263-83), the fact that all four Gospels narrate this event at the very least suggests that he was known to have been antagonistic to what he saw going on at the temple. As to the question of why Jesus did not attack the chief priests directly if his action was aimed at them, the answer is fairly simple: “aristocrats were surrounded by retainers and slaves” (Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018, 40). It would have been impossible, therefore, for Jesus to get direct access to the authorities—except, of course, if he stood before them in judgment. While according to all four Gospels Jesus protested against the way the authorities arrested and treated him (Matt 26:55; Mark 14:48-49; Luke 22:52-53; John 18:19-23), he did not lash out aggressively against them in their presence for the reasons mentioned in the third-to-last paragraph of this paper.

[26] See, for example, Matt 21:33-46; 23:1-36; 25:55; Mark 12:1-12, 38-40; 14:49; Luke 19:47; 20:1-18, 45-47; 21:37-38; 22:53; cf. John 18:20. Kim Huat Tan has argued that Jesus’ “action in the temple took place about two to three weeks before Passover” (The Zion Traditions and the Aims of Jesus; SNTSMS 91; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 194). This would explain why Jesus affirms that he had taught at the temple “day after day.”

[27] Most scholars would agree with Dunn that, at the very least, Jesus expected to share in the general and final resurrection of the dead (Jesus Remembered, 818-24).

[28] Usually the disciples are thought to have failed Jesus and abandoned him out of fear from the moment of his arrest. Peter’s denial of Jesus, Jesus’ affirmation that the disciples would fulfill Zach 13:7 by abandoning him (Mark 14:27; Matt 26:31), and the claim that they fled after his arrest (Mark 14:50; Matt 26:56) are particularly cited as the basis for this claim. It is noteworthy, however, that in Matthew and Mark’s accounts, at the supper the disciples claim that they are willing to die for Jesus and, when he is being arrested, at least one of them takes a sword and attempts to fight on Jesus’ behalf before Jesus puts a stop to it (Mark 14:29-31, 47; Matt 26:34-35, 51-52; cf. John 18:10-11). According to Luke, Jesus referred to the disciples as those who had stood alongside of him in his times of trial, Peter indicated his willingness to endure prison and death for Jesus, the other disciples were willing to take up swords at Jesus’ request, and when he was arrested they showed themselves to be willing to fight on his behalf (Luke 22:28, 33, 36-38, 49-51). The Fourth Evangelist says that Jesus’ “beloved disciple” was present during his crucifixion, and all four Gospels state or imply that Jesus’ disciples remained gathered together in Jerusalem immediately after his death rather than each fleeing the city to go his own way (Mark 16:7; Matt 28:7; Luke 24:19, 33; John 20:2-10, 19-20). Although Peter is said to have denied knowing Jesus, according to the Fourth Gospel he did have the courage to follow Jesus up to the door of the high priest’s court (John 18:15-16). This suggests that, even though they were undoubtedly perplexed and bewildered, unsure as to what they should do now that their leader had unexpectedly been taken away from them, they did not disperse or disband but continued to gather together, probably to discuss how to carry on without Jesus. The Gospels also affirm that there were several persons who were not afraid to express openly their support for Jesus not only during his crucifixion but also immediately after his death, such as Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and the women who went to the tomb on Sunday morning, many of whom had also accompanied him during his death.

[29] I would concur with the conclusion of Adam Winn that Mark 10:45 represents “the Gospel’s response to Roman imperial power and propaganda” and is intended “to subvert the power and propaganda of Rome’s emperors” (“Tyrant or Servant? Roman Political Ideology and Mark 10.42-45,” JSNT 2014 [36], 325-52, at 348-49; emphasis original). Contrary to Winn, however, I would argue that what is subversive is not so much the appropriation of Roman political ideology regarding a servant and sacrificial leader, but the notion that Jesus is not afraid to die at the hands of authorities such as those of Rome’s empire, and that he believed that his death would bring others to be delivered from their fear of dying at the hands of Rome as well. I would also agree with Christopher Stephen Mann that the “many” of whom this saying speaks refers specifically to the community of Jesus’ followers (Mark: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary; AB 27; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986, 416-17).

[30] Summarizing the ideas of Hans Weder, Die Gleichnisse Jesu als Metaphern: Traditions- und redaktionsgeschichtliche Analysen und Interpretationen (FRLANT 120; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978), 156-57, John S. Kloppenborg writes that “Jesus regarded himself as God’s final messenger and hence, to reject him was decisively to reject God” (Tenants in the Vineyard: Ideology, Economics, and Agrarian Conflict in Jewish Palestine; WUNT 195; Mohr Siebeck, 2006, 78).

[31] See Matt 21:23-46; 23:32; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19. Many have argued that Jesus’ citation from Ps 118:22 did not originally form part of this parable, since they interpret it as an allusion to his resurrection and exaltation. However, it could equally be an allusion to his death: his faithfulness to the task given him by his Father would constitute the cornerstone of a new construction, the church, since it would orient that construction and point it in the direction it should go, as well as forming part of its foundation.

[32] Together with Jan Willem van Henten, but for somewhat different reasons, I would question the notion that Jesus “considered himself a Jewish martyr, or the ultimate Jewish martyr” (“Jewish Martyrdom and Jesus’ Death,” in Deutungen des Todes Jesus in Neuen Testament; ed. Jörg Frey and Jens Schröter; WUNT 181; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005, 139-68, at 167). I would also question the notion that Jesus was merely attempting to lay down an example or establish a model or pattern that his disciples might follow. If Jesus believed that he had a special and unique authority from God, he probably would have expected that he would be raised from the dead—though perhaps not until the general resurrection, when all people would be raised—, yet at that time he would play a central role in the establishment of God’s reign. For this reason, there is no basis for arguing that, if Jesus did “predict and interpret his passion, the interpretation must have included the prediction of some kind of vindication beyond the passion. It is inconceivable that Jesus simply predicted the complete and final failure of his mission” (C. K. Barrett, Jesus and the Gospel Tradition; London: SPCK, 1967, 76; cf. Marinus de Jonge, God’s Final Envoy: Early Christology and Jesus’ Own View of his Mission; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, 19; Scot McKnight, Jesus and his Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005, 229-30). Many figures in history, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, have anticipated or predicted their death without claiming that they would rise from the dead shortly afterwards. In these cases, they hoped that their death would have a profound impact on the struggle taking place in the society of which they formed part. It is likely, however, that Jesus believed that his faithfulness to the task given him all the way to his death would bring God to place him in a position of ultimate authority when his reign arrived. Thus, unlike King or Romero, Jesus would have called on others to “follow him” and expected that they continue to do so after his death until the day when he would reign along with God at his side or under God as his “viceregent.”

[33] This epilogue did not form part of the original paper presented at the SBL meeting.

[34] For my full argument on all of these points, see my two-volume work Jesus’ Death in New Testament Thought (Mexico City: Theological Community of Mexico, 2018), especially chapters 5 and 10. Information on the book is available at my website,