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How the Early Followers of Jesus Dealt with the Unexpected Death of their Messiah

In my previous Kiosk article, “How the Story of Jesus’ Birth was Cobbled Together from Jewish Sources[1], I explained how the Gospel authors pieced together the earliest narrative of the Christmas story by embellishing the story of Jesus’ birth so that Jewish expectations of the Messiah would be met. For example, in that narrative a spurious Roman census leads Mary to give birth to Jesus in Bethlehem so that the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem would be fulfilled. The authors also selected Old Testament passages that did not pertain to a future Messiah, but creatively reinterpreted them as doing so. For example, the story of the “Massacre of the Innocents,” where King Herod ordered the killing of Bethlehemian infants, was born out of weaving together two brief and unconnected Old Testament passages from Hosea and Jeremiah. The Gospel authors clearly intended to present a Messiah fully compliant with Jewish scriptures in order to facilitate the conversion of their largely unconvinced peers.

Explaining Jesus’ death by crucifixion presented a more difficult task. As noted in my aforementioned article, the Messiah was expected to be a king with temporal power who would re-establish the Israelite monarchy following centuries of foreign rule. No evidence has ever come to light of a Jewish line of thinking at this time that the Messiah was to suffer and be executed by the very authorities that he was meant to overthrow. Nevertheless, the Gospel authors needed to construct a narrative that presented this as God’s plan all along in order to refute the received wisdom that the Messiah would be a divinely sanctioned monarch.

As with Jesus’ birth story, it would aid the Gospel authors’ cause if they were able to point to Old Testament passages that explicitly mentioned a suffering and defeated Messiah. In the complete absence of any such passage, the author of the Gospel of Matthew employed a strategy like the one he used when providing his account of the Nativity, seeking out disparate and unconnected parts of the Old Testament. For example, a passage where the prophet Zechariah is paid 30 pieces of silver[2] was said to foretell the payment of the same amount to Judas Iscariot for revealing the whereabouts of Jesus prior to his arrest. When the Old Testament prophet Zechariah prophecies that false prophets will be “smitten” by God (Zechariah 13:7), this is recast as a prophecy about God’s prophet being “smitten” by other people. Other longer passages, whose theme was one of injustice and persecution, also had the potential for re-evaluation as messianic prophecy; and it was not difficult to locate these in the Jewish scriptures, which chart the checkered history of the Jewish nation and thus speak of the whole spectrum of human experiences and emotions.

“My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

The 22nd psalm also presented early Christians with an opportunity to reinterpret Old Testament scripture as foretelling Jesus’ crucifixion. The Psalms were an anthology of poems set to music and used in liturgical worship in the Jerusalem Temple. Some of them are full of praise for God. Others speak of the author’s remorse for sins committed. Jesus of Nazareth would have been familiar with many of the Psalms, as would any reasonably observant Jew at the time. Psalm 22 has been described as a ‘lament psalm’ because the author bemoans his current circumstances and describes his feelings as he is surrounded and tormented by his enemies. The mood of the psalm is said to have resonated with the ancient Israelites as they suffered another foreign invasion and eventual exile by the Babylonian Empire in the 6th century BCE. That mood undoubtedly also resonated with Jesus as he suffered a humiliating and exhausting death on the cross.

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus quotes the first line of this psalm from the cross: “My God, my God who have you forsaken me?” And Jesus’ recitation of it might well be historically true. The fact that Mark gives the words in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus—”eli eli lama sabachthani” (Mark 15:34)—gives this assertion a certain credibility. However, no Jew regarded this psalm as containing a hotbed of messianic prophecy. Nevertheless, Mark—perhaps inspired by Jesus’ use of its opening line—used the psalm as his inspiration for fleshing out his crucifixion narrative. When the author of the psalm speaks of his tormentors “mocking him” and “shaking their heads” (Psalm 22:7), Mark has the audience of Jesus’ route to the crucifixion on the cross doing the same (Mark 15:29). When the author of the psalm feels like his belongings are being stolen and gambled for (Psalm 22:18), Mark has the Roman soldiers do exactly that to Jesus’ clothes, the only things that Jesus is likely to have had in his possession at this time. (Mark 15:20). The next two chronological Gospels, Matthew and Luke—who used Mark extensively as their main source—repeat these assertions. The later (and more independent) Gospel of John further alludes to the psalm. When the psalm’s author refers to himself feeling as if he has been “poured out like water” (Psalm 22:14), John has a mixture of water and blood pour out of Jesus’ dead body when it is stabbed by a Roman sword (John 19:34), a curious occurrence for which Christian apologists search for a spiritual, or even medical, explanation to this day. John also has Jesus refer to his thirst (John 19:28) in the same manner as the tortured soul of the psalm does (Psalm 22:15), and is at pains to explicitly draw readers’ attention, at three different junctures, to such things happening “so that the scripture might be fulfilled” (John 19:24, 19:28, 19:36).

“Israel is My Servant” (Isaiah 41:8)

Another opportunity to reclaim a longer passage of the Old Testament as prophecy was presented by the book of Isaiah. Here the author personifies ancient Israel as a ‘servant’ in a number of different passages (e.g., Isaiah 41:8, 44:1, 45:4). The idea presented is that God has chosen Israel to serve as a role model or “light unto the nations” (42:6, 49:6). In the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, the author goes on to describe the fate of the Israelites after they have been taken into exile by the Babylonian Empire. Thus the author describes an entity that is “despised,” “rejected,” and “oppressed.” The passage is written from the point of view of Israel’s tormentors, who speak in the first person about the state that they have persecuted. Though the notion of an oppressed and rejected Jesus may seem at odds with the picture of Jesus having attracted audiences in the thousands (see Mark 8:9, Luke 12:1 & John 6:10), the entity described in Isaiah 53 was subsequently reclaimed by the Gospel authors as being Jesus rather than the Israelite nation:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)

Here the author uses a simile, comparing Israel to a sheep about to meekly face its shearing. In constructing the fulfilment of this prophecy, Mark, Matthew, and Luke have Jesus say next to nothing during his trial before Pontius Pilate (Mark 15:5, Matthew 27:11 and Luke 23:9). The later Gospel of John, however, seems to be off script in having Jesus openly remonstrate with his Roman prosecutors (John 18:33-37).

They made his grave with the wicked
    and his tomb with the rich. (Isaiah 53:9)

When Israel was described as being buried with the wicked and rich Gentile people following the Israelites’ exile to Babylon in the 6th century BCE, a detail was inserted whereby Jesus is crucified with two career criminals (“the wicked”). On his death, Jesus’ body is not condemned to the usual fate of being left to rot at the mercy of the elements and be scavenged upon by preying birds, but instead is handed over to Joseph of Arimathea (“the rich”)—a supposedly wealthy and influential member of the Jewish establishment who seems to have escaped the attention of everybody apart from the Gospel authors themselves (see Mark 15:43-46, Matthew 27:57, and Luke 23:50-53).

Theology of the Crucifixion

In addition to showing that the details of the Crucifixion supposedly fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, there also needed to be a reason for a divine-human to face a death usually reserved for the likes of pirates and slaves. While ruffling the feathers of the Roman and Jewish establishments is given as the surface reason, a deeper reason was required to explain how the ignominious nature of crucifixion could have happened to a Messiah meant to institute God’s kingdom on Earth. A radically alternative interpretation of the nature of messiahship was therefore sought.

Like many ancient cultures, the Israelites had held that killing an animal and setting fire to its carcass would please their gods. Such a ritual could be performed by Jews as an atonement for sin such that if they were to break God’s commandments, an animal sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple could restore their damaged relationship with him. A theology was very cleverly developed likening the Crucifixion to such an atonement sacrifice. The view put forward in the Gospel of Mark was that God had decided that the sacrificial system of the Jerusalem Temple was not enough to atone for the sins of all mankind. God himself had, therefore, intervened in the world by engineering a situation whereby his son would be executed. His death rendered the killing of sheep, goats, and bulls redundant, and had provided an ultimate sacrifice, atoning for the disregard for God’s laws. After-the-fact prophecies were placed into Jesus’ discourse with his disciples, where he predicts his fate to bemused disciples who—like all other Jews at the time—subscribed to the idea of the Messiah as a divinely ordained king with earthly power (see Mark 8:31-32, Matthew 20:17-19, and Luke 9:22). The Gospel of Luke goes so far as to update Mark’s account of an anguished Jesus (who feels that God “has forsaken him”) to one that coolly submits to his destiny, knowing that it is all part of a divine plan.

The latest Gospel, the Gospel of John, draws another cunning parallel. At the Passover celebrations, ancient Jews slaughtered a lamb in remembrance of the lamb that was killed during their enslavement in Egypt, so that its blood could be smeared over the doors of Jewish homes (Exodus 12:5-7). This would give a sign to the ‘Angel of Death,’ who would then ‘pass over’ their houses. In John’s interpretation of the Crucifixion, Jesus becomes such a Passover lamb, protecting people from death. The blood shed by the lamb and smeared on the wooden doors of ancient Israelite homes becomes Jesus’ blood smeared on the wooden cross. This is why only John calls Jesus the ‘Lamb of God’ (John 1:29 and John 1:36). Fortuitously, the festival of Passover was taking place at the same time of Jesus’ crucifixion. However, John has to change the date of his death from the day of Passover itself to the day before, known as the Day of Preparation (John 19:31), when the Passover lamb would traditionally be killed. While this gave John the opportunity to make the comparison more conspicuous, it meant that he could not include the detail of Jesus sharing his final Passover meal, or ‘Last Supper,’ with his disciples, which would have taken place on the following day. Instead, he has Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-5), and only a passing reference to a communal meal is made.

Scriptural Tweaking

For good measure, the verses of the original Hebrew books of the Old Testament began to be tweaked so that their contents could be more credibly compared to events at the Crucifixion. For example, the original Hebrew verse of Psalm 22 has the writer explain that his oppressors are “like a lion at my hands and feet” (22:16). Over time, this verse was copied, recopied, and modified such that anyone picking up a Christian Bible today will read that the subject instead has his hands and feet “pierced.” Using the word “pierced” enabled the early Christians to suggest that the Crucifixion was much more consistent with Psalm 22, as the act of piercing gives a more explicit sense of an implement penetrating and passing through a body part. It also presented them with an opportunity to make the impressive claim that the very method of Jesus’ death was foretold hundreds of years before crucifixion had even begun to be employed by the Romans as a form of execution.

Similarly, when the aggressors of Israel in Isaiah 53 talk of it being “wounded by our transgressions,” practically all Christian renderings of this verse now render “wounded” as “pierced.” More strikingly, most modern Christian Bibles now use the phrase “pierced for our transgressions,” giving the impression that the subject matter has acted as an innocent scapegoat for other people’s wrongdoings. Another, more cynical tweaking of the eighth verse of this chapter has Israel being taken away, not “by oppression and judgment” (as the original Hebrew form of Isaiah states), but “by arrest,” so that the passage will align more with events in the Garden of Gethsemane.


The early Christians’ accounts of the death of Jesus of Nazareth were therefore constructed with a number of Jewish scriptures in mind to show that a suffering Messiah had been prophesied all along. Interpretations of the event were also developed whereby the Crucifixion became the method used by God to allow people to absolve themselves of their sins without fear of punishment, and without having to submit to the rigmarole of regular animal sacrifices. The Gospel of John’s interpretation of Jesus as a ‘Passover Lamb’ gave followers the opportunity to evade death just like the original Passover lamb allowed ancient Israelites to escape the Angel of Death. Both of these concepts—the promise of eternal life and complete absolution for former wrongdoings—proved to be powerful recruitment tools for the early Christians. In providing remedies for two major sources of human anxiety—fear of death and guilt over past behavior—Christianity has continued to be of huge appeal to this day.


[1] Robert Shaw, “How the Story of Jesus’ Birth was Cobbled Together from Jewish Sources” (2018). The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/kiosk/article/how-jesus-birth-story-was-cobbled-936.html>.

[2] This is Zechariah 11:12-13, although Matthew erroneously attributes the verses to Jeremiah.