(Draft) Proposal for… (Jesus’ Suicide in Galatians)

As with yesterday, this is a draft. Constructive, polite, and wonderful comments only.

ben witherington quote jesus death


This volume proposes to draw out a model not yet properly offered. I will attempt to present the death of Jesus not as one who was sacrificed unwillingly; committed suicide in a traditional sense; or suffered martyrdom; but rather as a devotio, albeit a devotio strictly defined against the combined backdrop of Second Temple Judaism, Stoicism, and existing patterns of the Roman devotio.

Defined simply, the devotio, which originated in ancient Roman religion, was a self-sacrificing type of suicide.   Persons who executed devotiones did so neither for nor against a religious or political cause, but rather for a much deeper reason: To produce a significant change in social order that would result in an expected cosmic peace. With respect to Jesus’ death, each of the aforementioned views — sacrifice, suicide, and martyrdom — have been dealt with by scholars; however, no such work yet exists explaining the death of Christ by the model set forth by Roman Stoics and initiated by Decius Mus, Cato the Younger, and the Emperor Otho. Rather, such a view is often misunderstood as a “noble death.”[1]

Further, I will propose death by devotio indicates not only a high Christological self-viewpoint and communal viewpoint, but also, when paired with Judaism, it shows an elevated covenantal viewpoint. Indeed, had Jesus not thought of himself as God’s son or the Davidic messiah, he would not have completed the devotio, since only divine sonship and messianic self-identity can provide adequate motive for engaging in a devotio on behalf of the kingdom of God.

This is why we find this example used in Galatians. This type of self-sacrifice, which repeats itself throughout the New Testament, originates chronologically with Galatians, a text that abundantly features this concept. Prolific, varied atonement models have led to a conflated maelstrom of hermeneutical confusion, and once the tempestuous sea of voices shouting various models is calmly silenced and the faithful reader is left alone to interpret the text, what will emerge — I believe — will be the earliest model for the atonement drawn from one of the earliest New Testament documents.

While the physical result — death — is the same in sacrifice, suicide, martyrdom, and devotio, the purpose and expected outcome are different. For the moment, I will include devotio in the realm of suicide (self-inflicted death but not martyrdom).[2] Furthermore, I will only offer speculation as to the exact outcome of the calculus of life. Belief does not include factual truth and, as yet, we are unable to determine the precise consequence of either ending one’s own life (suicide), or others ending one’s life (sacrifice and martyrdom); therefore, I will speak only to what was said to have happened, or rather, the purpose of each change of reality as intended.

One will find a linguistic theme underpinning much of the New Testament, one which I maintain, is a latent deposition of the devotio. First of all, Paul used passive language in Romans 4.25 to describe Jesus as one who “delivered up for our sins” without strictly naming who or what led to this.[3] Likewise, in a statement clearly imitating Emperor Otho, Caiaphas hinted that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice (John 11.50) although Jesus earlier assured readers of the account that this sacrifice happened because he allowed and initiated it (John 10.18).

Further, we may read the startling example of Hebrews 10.19–20 which have long been recognized as connected, at least in verbiage, to the story of Decius Mus. Of Mus, Lucius Annaeus Florus wrote: “alter quasi monitu deorum capite velato primam ante aciem Dis Manibus se devoverit, ut in confertissima se hostium tela jaculatus novum ad victoriam iter sanguinis sui limite aperiret.”[4] This statement parallels the sacrifice found in the Hebrews passage, in that, just as Decius Mus sacrificed himself so that the Roman armies would have a literal way opened to victory against the Latin armies, so Christ’s death and self-sacrifice in the midst of an otherwise hopeless situation opened up a spiritual way of victory against the hordes of hell, in order that believers might enter the presence of God. Even in light of these examples, in order to really begin the investigative work into the devotio as an early model, if not the progenitor of other models, we must turn to one of the earliest documented evidences of the death of Jesus: Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia.[5]

Concerning the dating of early Pauline correspondence, there is some dispute as to whether or not Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians before he composed Galatians. Both letters seem to have an early date. Ultimately, however, this discussion is irrelevant to our discussion for two reasons. First, on one hand Galatians was written to a regional group of churches while on the other hand 1 Thessalonians was written to a single church. Thus, Galatians exercised greater influence on a larger number of churches. Secondly, Galatians dealt with the foundation of the Pauline Gospel—Christ and him crucified—and with several topics directly related to the fruit of that foundation. 1 Thessalonians, by comparison, did not. Rather, with a much narrower scope, it exclusively dealt with a single issue not unrelated to the foundation of the Pauline Gospel—the return of Jesus. So, ultimately, even if the writing of 1 Thessalonians predated Galatians, Galatians was still the first of Paul’s writings to work exclusively with the death of Christ on the cross, its meaning for those who follow him, and topics that naturally flowed out of that foundational topic. Because of this fortunate placement of Galatians (as an early letter and as one speaking directly to the meaning of the death of Jesus), I will focus only on it for this work.

[1]          For example, see the work by Friedrich Avemarie and Jan Willem van Henten, Martyrdom and Noble Death: Selected Texts from Graeco-Roman, Jewish and Christian Antiquity. (Routledge, 2002) and Arthur Droge and James Tabor, A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom Among Christians and Jews in Antiquity (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992). I will cover the scholarship on “noble death” as a subset of self-sacrifice” as viewed by both Romans and Jewish in subsequent chapters.

[2]          Jarvis Williams briefly examines devotio as a background to the Maccabean martyrdom, which is his proposed background to Paul’s theology of atonement; however, while he can admit that the act has certain elements (expiatation, appeasement, aversion of wrath, and a victim that is more than human) he passes over it as a similarity to martyrdom (Maccabean Martyr Traditions, 35–37, cf. 43.).

[3]          For more on how this verse and how passive language plays a part in Paul’s apologetic, see Jonathan A. Linebaugh, God, Grace, and Righteousness in Wisdom of Solomon and Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Texts in Conversation (Novum Testamentum, Supplements) and Wendy Dabourne, Purpose and Cause in Pauline Exegesis: Romans 1.16 and 4.25 and a New Approach to the Letters

[4]          Epitome 1.14.3, see Harold W. Attridge and Helmut Koester, The Epistle to the Hebrews: a Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Fortress Press, 1989) 285n26. See also, Marcus Dods, “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” in The Expositor’s Greek Testament: Commentary, Vol. IV. (George H. Doran Company, n.d.), 4346.

[5]          For the sake of brevity, I will follow Longenecker’s date and audience measurements. See Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (vol. 41; Word Biblical Commentary; Word, Incorporated, 1998), lxx and lxxii—lxxxvii. He posits Galatians as earlier than 1 Thessalonians and written to communities in southern Galatia.

(Draft) Introduction to… (Jesus’ Suicide in Galatians)

I’m going to post bits and pieces of my dissertation drafts. Not all is post. If you feel the need to destroy things, don’t comment. If you have questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. If you have constructive criticisms that won’t destroy my battered, bruised, and nearly non-existent ego, then leave them.

“Joel, I will cut you,” – St. Paul, author of “Galatians and Self-Mutilation”


The need to identify those responsible for the death of Jesus touches our humanity with as much cathartic, theological, and ideological force as the death of Jesus. Indeed, we often root our search for these guilty parties in our individual apologetic need; however, we must move beyond mere guilt-assignment for Jesus’ physical death, because that death has moved past forensic understanding, as, after all, the body has long since vanished. From forensic matters, we must move into an assessment of what remains: the dearth of literary artifacts that pertain to guilt or cause.

The literary artifacts at our disposal are indeed vast. From recorded history and written traditions to social theories and other facets, there is virtually no shortage of material from which the researcher might draw. Through these documents we apprehend not only the cognitive environment of the New Testament, which formed the external environment in which Jesus lived, but also the way in which Jesus may have internally grasped his own identity.

From these literary artifacts about Jesus, scholars set forth a number of documents in which they sought to distill who the Jesus of history actually was. Often, these quests for the historical Jesus were driven by theological concerns and, as a result, became theological contributions themselves. This is true of many of these writings over the last two centuries. Certainly, the figure of Jesus is one of theology, rather than any historical fact – unless we are willing to alter our understanding of history. This is not to say Jesus was a myth or something other than a real person; but it is to say that what we have received of Jesus is theology more than it is history by our current understanding of those terms.

From this nexus of the quest of the historical Jesus, in addition to the literary artifacts described above, we have received a narrative about Jesus and several figures have spoken to the significance of that narrative. Roland Barthes called this narrative, “international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself.”[1] As Hayden White notes, the narrative is normally seen as only a “form of discourse which may or may not be used for the representation of historical events.”[2] Because we have received not one but several narratives of the life of Jesus, including the final canonical chronicle, the person White determines as the “narrative historian” must learn to differentiate these narratives from one another, from the reception of the narrative, and, ultimately, from the author’s initial narrative.

If we are able to adequately take on the role of White’s “narrative historians” and thereby accomplish this multilayer task of narrative differentiation, we will then be left not with just a historical person of Jesus sans theological interpretation, but what we hope is a more realistic person of Jesus: the Jesus of theology, drawn from the earliest possible theological narrative, from which the authors of canon in turn would have constructed their various narratives. Rather than denying the Gospel writers, and perhaps even Paul, the role of “historians,” we should allow that they were simply translating their own “symbolic significances” into something of a theological stratagem.[3]

If we then concede that the Gospel writers and even Paul wrote “histories,” we may then allow each their own “emplotments.” According to White, an emplotment is a literary device that encodes “the facts contained in the chronicle as components of specific kinds of plot structures.”[4] Following this, we must then affirm that each author, as a historian and theologian, built their own story on a previous narrative. Because of this, we may hear echoes of previous narratives and see cultural images reused (albeit with minor and unique changes) rather than a conclusive and original symbol. Yet, for all of this transforming of narratives, emplotment, and editorial work, one thing remains, virtually untouched at the center of the New Testament and early Christianity: Christ crucified.

The one generality most New Testament and Historical Jesus scholars can agree on without much nuance is the death of Jesus. Who he was, or thought he was; the facts surrounding, and significance of, the resurrection; and even the overall message, or messages, of his ministry have been and still are, the topics of incessant debate, frequently resulting in as many conclusions as there are scholars.   However, it is the death of Jesus that unites even the most diverse views of him. For example, Rudolf Bultmann argued for a historical account as the earliest report.[5] Helmut Koester believed, “there was certainly a written form of the Passion Narrative at an early date.”[6] John Dominic Crossan, somewhat following Koester, went so far as to suggest the passion narrative was the original document from which the Gospels sprang.[7] Adela Yarbro and John J. Collins argued that the death and subsequent resurrection formed the heart of the already existent argument that Jesus was in fact the long-promised Messiah.[8] Ellen Bradshaw Aitken posited that the death of Jesus constituted a central tenet of the Christian faith before Paul’s ministry.[9] Centuries before these scholars, Justin Martyr called the cross the greatest symbol of the power of Christ.[10] Finally, the Apostle Paul considered his message one beginning with the cross upon which Jesus was executed.[11] In summary of these many viewpoints, little doubt should remain that early Jesus followers treated the crucifixion of Jesus as the first and most important narrative of the faith.   The death of Jesus generated not just what has become Christianity, but also the multifarious expressions and interpretations of those events. Indeed, all of these variegations drew inspiration from in the same emplotments.

[1]          Roland Barthes, “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative,” Image, Music, Text. Translated by S. Heath. (New York, 1977), 79.

[2]          The emphasis is White’s. See, Hayden White, “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theology,” History and Theory, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Feb., 1984), 1–33.

[3]          White writes, “[H]istorical narratives [….] succeed in endowing sets of past events with meanings… the historian charges those events with the symbolic significance of a comprehensible plot structure.” See White, Tropics of Discourse, 91–92.

[4]          Hayden White, “The Historical Text As Literary Artifact”, re-printed in Geoffrey Roberts (editor), The History and Narrative Reader, (Routledge , 2001), 223.

[5]          Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (trans. John Marsh from the 2nd German ed. 1931; NHarper & Row, 1963; rev. ed. 1968) 273, 275-79, 281. For more on this, see Ellen Bradshaw Aitken, Jesus’ Death in Early Christian Memory: The Poetics of the Passion (NTOA 53; Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht; 2004)

[6]          Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, vol. 2, History and Literature of Early Christianity (de Gruyter, 1982; German ed. 1980) 49, 163.

[7]          See his work, The Cross that Spoke, (Harper & Row, 1988), 16-30. In this work, Crossan argues that a brief narrative of the cruxifixion, lacking many of the elements found either in the canonical Gospels or the non-canonical Gospel of Peter, was all that the earliest Christians began with. Koester would respond to Crossan, arguing against a singular written source. See, Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Trinity Press International,1990) 216-30.

[8]          Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008) 101-22.

[9]          Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008) 101-22.

[10]         Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 55.

[11]         1 Corinthians 1.18.

Quick thoughts, before I forget, on Galatians 2.20 and παραδίδωμι

ζῶ δὲ οὐκέτι ἐγώ, ζῇ δὲ ἐν ἐμοὶ Χριστός· ὃ δὲ νῦν ζῶ ἐν σαρκί, ἐν πίστει ζῶ τῇ τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀγαπήσαντός με καὶ παραδόντος ἑαυτὸν ὑπὲρ ἐμοῦ. – Galatians 2.20

English: Icon of Jesus Christ
English: Icon of Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I need to write this down to clear it up some and to have on recall for later. So…

As you know, my dissertation proposes a unique model of atonement in Galatians based on Jesus’s voluntary death — he voluntarily surrendered himself to die for/in order to bring about/X the new creation/covenant. I usually just drop the suicide bomb.

While I will explain the actual mechanical functions of the atonement — how it works and why — I need to build up several ideas.

1.) That it was voluntary but goes beyond voluntary and into something that looks like a curse/sin. Jesus doesn’t just offer himself up, but sees it as his required service to die because he is divine.

2.) That it was to stop the wrath of God/divine absence. This is not in the PSA sense, but in the “God, where are you? Why have you abandoned me (Israel)? Why are you still warring against me?” sense. Sure, this may look like PSA, but it is not divine child abuse. This is based completely on the free will of Jesus and focused explicitly on an high early Christology (perhaps even reaching directly back to Jesus himself…er, Himself).

In my head, it looks (for now), like this. Jesus, being divine (in some sense I’m not ready to define), willing ritually sacrifices himself exactly because he sees himself as divine. In doing so, he declares his divinity. But, the reasons to sacrifice going beyond the mandatory “I do this because I’m divine.” Rather, the reasons are likewise important. God is absent from the life of Israel. He is no more in the Temple. Israel is run over by other gods, namely, the Romans. Sin abounds. So, Jesus, attempting to bring an end to this cosmic war between God and Israel. Because of this action, there is a new covenant between God…and the cosmos.

παραδίδωμι is connected to wrath, especially when used in connection with the Deity (cf Hosea 5.10). In Galatians 2.20, Jesus is giving himself up. In Galatians 3.13-14… it is better described. Jesus becomes the curse. The curse? Sure. Read Deuteronomy to see what “the curse” is. It is the ongoing wrath of God. Jesus literally becomes the wrath of God, ending it and conflagulating the cosmos once more.

Anyway, I needed to write this down and will continue to flesh this out. My focus is Galatians 3.13-14, because in this small pericope, Jesus is becoming that which God uses as divine judgement. But it is by Jesus’s free will.

Basically, Galatians 3.1-14 is a direct explanation of Galatians 2.20: Jesus becomes the curse, παραδίδωμι, because Jesus is divine, Jesus wants to stop the Divine Absence/War/Wrath/Old Covenant and bring about something new between God and Cosmos. It is as much about God as it is about the Creatures. It is no longer a unilateral covenant from God to a people, but now comes from the earth to the sky. Jesus is forcing a new covenant, from the ground up, and it includes all people.

what if Jesus died for God’s honor?

I realize this thesis has never been proposed before so bear with me…

In reading through what Jarvis Williams calls “martyrdom theology” I come across Eleazar of 2 Maccabees:

Eleazar, one of the foremost scribes, a man advanced in age and of noble appearance, was being forced to open his mouth to eat pork. 19 But preferring a glorious death to a life of defilement, he went forward of his own accord to the instrument of torture, 20 spitting out the meat as they should do who have the courage to reject food unlawful to taste even for love of life.

21 Those in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring his own provisions that he could legitimately eat, and only to pretend to eat the sacrificial meat prescribed by the king. 22 Thus he would escape death, and be treated kindly because of his old friendship with them. 23 But he made up his mind in a noble manner, worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his gray hair, and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood. Above all loyal to the holy laws given by God, he swiftly declared, “Send me to Hades!”

Persephone and Hades. Tondo of an Attic red-fi...
Persephone and Hades. Tondo of an Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440-430 BC. Said to be from Vulci. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

24 “At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many of the young would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. 25 If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my old age. 26 Even if, for the time being, I avoid human punishment, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hand of the Almighty. 27 Therefore, by bravely giving up life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age, 28 and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.”

He spoke thus, and went immediately to the instrument of torture. 29 Those who shortly before had been kindly disposed, now became hostile toward him because what he had said seemed to them utter madness. 30 When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned, saying: “The Lord in his holy knowledge knows full well that, although I could have escaped death, I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to him.” 31 This is how he died, leaving in his death a model of nobility and an unforgettable example of virtue not only for the young but for the whole nation.

Note specifically v.26-28. There is a connection between honor and blasphemy. If Jesus died as martyr, or with the theology of martyrdom on his side, then he died in response to the honor of God.

I don’t necessarily believe that is the case, as you should know by now; however, the story does give us a sense that there exists a connection, just as in suicide, for a chosen death and a sense of honor. Eleazar dies devoted to God — as a devotion to God — to avoid dishonoring God.