Why Was He Crucified?

Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jewsby Paula FredriksenAlfred A. Knopf. 327p $26

With this accessible yet critically responsible examination, Paula Fredriksen, the Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University, has made a significant contribution to the continuing debate concerning the historical Jesus. Right from the start, her book’s several virtues ought gladly to be saluted. Chief among them is her resolve to work as a genuine historian rather than as a theologian using history to do theology’s heavy lifting. She understands both the uses and the limits of proper historical method in the pursuit of probable knowledge about the past, and resists the temptation to render a Jesus whose possible relevance for the present comes at the cost of anachronism. She seeks a Jesus who is intelligible both within first-century Judaism and within the New Testament witnesses, above all Paul and the four canonical Gospels. She relies heavily upon lines of convergence connecting Paul, the Gospels (including John) and the evidence about Judaism provided by ancient sources, both literary and archaeological.

Fredriksen has worked through the primary source material herself. She presents the evidence and the various problems it poses with clarity and fairness. Readers who are familiar with the many alternative constructions of Jesus will recognize in her discussions a careful reading of the positions she rejects, while her extended endnotes provide closer discussion and bibliographical references. Because of her close attention to the centrality of the temple in Jewish life, as well as the pervasiveness and normality of purification practices, she particularly finds inadequate those reconstructions of Jesus’ ministry that oppose Jesus in principle to the temple and to purity laws. Such reconstructions appear to her as anachronistically derived from contemporary concerns rather than from close attention to the ancient sources. She argues that a responsible historical account concerning Jesus must not only show some continuity between Jesus and the movement that continued after his death but must also answer two specific questions: Why was Jesus killed, and why were his followers not killed with him? After helpful discussions of historical method and the Jewish context for Jesus’ ministry, Fredricksen uses Paul and the Gospels together to build a solid framework for the historical Jesus before moving into a more speculative consideration of Jesus’ career and the reasons for his death.


Her reconstruction of Jesus’ career is distinctive in its reliance on the chronological framework and itinerary of the Fourth Gospel. In building her hypothesis, Fredriksen joins her conviction that Jesus was deeply devoted to the Temple to the Johannine portrayal of Jesus’ multiple visits to Jerusalem. Otherwise, she sides with those scholars who, since Schweitzer, have regarded Jesus as an eschatological prophet of God’s rule, whose wonder-working functions signal that imminent reign and whose radical teaching is intelligible only as an interim ethics. The real puzzle is how the title Christ comes to be attached to Jesus, since he apparently did not use it of himself; yet it was applied to him in the earliest Christian writings. Using John, she thinks Jesus repeatedly visited the Temple in Jerusalem, thus becoming known to the authorities there. Somehow, on his last trip, Jesus let it be known that he expected God to intervene. Not his immediate followers but the city crowds hailed him as messiah. Although Pilate and the priests knew Jesus to be harmless, they wanted to avoid riots and so colluded in having Jesus summarily executed as a warning to the people against popular messianic uprisings. His followers are scattered, but on the basis of the conviction that he was raised from the dead, began proclaiming Jesus’ imminent return as the fulfillment of his own prophecy about God’s intervention, thus beginning the Christian religion in continuity with Jesus’ own vision: Jesus is the first-born of the future resurrection.

In its broad lines, the reconstruction has considerable merit. It makes clear the connections between certain streams of Jewish apocalyptic, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul. It avoids the all-too-frequent tendency to read Jesus’ mind, or to construct a Jesus who is politically correct by present-day standards. The more specific the hypothesis, however, the more certain weaknesses emerge. Fredriksen clearly states the difference between the descriptive task of historical reconstruction and the explanation of causes. But in the end, she moves too far into explanation. She does not try to read Jesus’ mind, but she requires of Pilate and the priests that they read Jesus’ mind. As so often in these efforts, the desire to push past the explicit evidence requires speculation. And the speculative element turns out to be the key to the entire construction.

A more serious criticism is that Fredriksen’s reconstruction leaves out elements that arguably need to be included. What about those parts of Paul—and of other early writings like James and Hebrews that she leaves out of account— that are not apocalyptic? And what about those elements in the Gospels that are not taken up by Fredriksen? On what critical basis are they eliminated? Above all, Fredriksen needs, even as a historian, to give more attention to the resurrection. Her determination to find continuity between Jesus and Paul makes her neglect elements of discontinuity that also must figure into the discussion. The historian cannot, it is true, assess the resurrection as historical event. But the claims made by Paul and others about the resurrection are surely part of the historical evidence for early Christian convictions concerning that event. These claims make clear that Jesus is not simply "King of the Jews" but is also the "New Adam," that his significance is cosmic and not merely historical.

That being said, Fredriksen has managed an account that is at once responsible and readable. It is the book I will now recommend to those who desire "one readable book on the historical Jesus."

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