The Roman historian Tacitus did not like Christians. Writing around AD 112, he described them as “a class hated for their disgraceful acts.” He does not tell us what these acts are. But he goes on to explain that “Christus, from whom the name ‘Chrestians’ had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”
This sentence, its content so familiar, is crucial for historians. It is the earliest known non-Christian text to mention Jesus Christ. Ironically, then, the first piece of “external” evidence we have about Jesus speaks not of his wondrous birth, his parables, his miracles or his empty tomb. It tells us — 80 years after the fact — that Jesus died.
Tacitus would have been surprised to see his brief explanation become so noteworthy in centuries to come. His interest was not in Christ or Christ’s followers. Rather, he wanted to expose the corruption of the Roman imperial state. In this chapter of his Annals, he is describing the dreadful fire that swept through Rome in AD 64. When a rumour circulated that the Emperor Nero had deliberately set the fire himself in order to rebuild Rome to his own glory, Nero fixed the blame, says Tacitus, on the Christians.
Why did Jesus die? The death of Jesus posed problems for the early Christians. It brought mockery and abuse. It made their message hard to proclaim. A dead human god was not much to brag about in a Mediterranean region stocked with immortal deities. Some could not believe that a true redeemer would suffer like that, and they developed theories to explain that Christ never really was human, or that he switched bodies before the crucifixion. Most, however, tried to make sense of this brutal and senseless act against their saviour.
The Apostle Paul, who knew his own share of suffering for his faith, worked out a sophisticated theology that said Jesus’ death was the result of his decision to “empty himself” of his power to become a humble human being. Jesus’ life — and death — of loving obedience became the good news that Paul risked his life to share.
The Gospel writers wove narratives that mingle divine intention with human agency in varying proportions. We see personal betrayal. We witness the crushing power of religious and political elites. And we hear of a divine plan, from Mark’s cryptic “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering” (Mark 8:31), to John’s story of Jesus blithely telling Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it was given you from above” (John 19:11).
Why did Jesus die? Over the centuries, Christians have debated their early answers again and again. When Christianity gained the power of the state in the fourth century, coercion and violence often accompanied those theological deliberations. The question of God’s suffering perplexed and divided believers. The generous notion of Jesus living and dying with and for us emerged as the terrifying picture of an angry God demanding justice — and then mercifully offering his own son’s life as the necessary penalty. The humility believers experience in the face of this divine drama has become a tool of suppression: Christians must accept unjust suffering because Jesus did. Christians must be docile and subservient because Jesus died for us.
Most tragically, Jesus’ death became the excuse for rampant anti-Judaism. Jesus died because the Jews killed him, said religious and political leaders, thus encouraging the sort of hatred practised by Nero against the “Chrestians.” European Jews were expelled from their homes, prohibited from social and economic activity, herded into ghettos and personally insulted. But Jews also served as a useful reminder of the shame of “causing” Jesus’ death, so they were not uniformly banished. Even Blaise Pascal, a gifted 17th-century thinker, could reason that it was necessary, as a proof of Jesus Christ, both that the Jews “should continue to exist, and that they should be miserable because they killed him.” Christians have excelled at creating that misery.
Why did Jesus die? Much ink, and even more blood, has been spilled in response to that question. Perhaps, 1,900 years after Tacitus’s brief obituary, it is time to embrace only those answers that lead from division to reconciliation, from terror to kindness. It takes, wrote German theologian Dorothee Soelle, “mystical defiance” to cling to the gift of life and hope that we encounter in our dying human God. Are we up for the challenge?
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