Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus Stephen J. Patterson
This book has been sitting on my shelf for years. I purchased this book from my seminary bookstore because it was written by my New Testament Professor. I loved his class. I learned so much from his book, The God of Jesus. I still reference it regularly when teaching and preaching. Finally I dug into this book, and I was not disappointed. Let me describe Steve as I knew him. He is a scholar and a man of faith. He pushes and challenges your assumptions and ideas of Jesus in ways that are sometimes painful. And if you stick with it, you will learn and grow. Steve writes in a manner that makes difficult topics easy to read. I was shocked by some of what I read and so fascinated that I had to read on.
In this book, we read about Jesus as victim, martyr, and sacrifice using these three concepts as they were understood by Jesus’ contemporaries and contemporaries of the writers of the New Testament. And I recognize that this review is much longer than most reviews I write. Because this topic hits so close to our hearts, I wanted to include as much information as I could about this book. I’d love for you to read the book, and I know that may not happen. So here is my review.
In “Victim”, we learn about the concept of patronage and its importance in the Roman Empire. In the hierarchy of patronage, everyone is beholden to someone else except the Ruler. Your status or prestige is based on how many people are beholden to you because they are making money for you (17-18). We know Jesus was born in a humble manner, and to make matters even worse he was born into a family that had no land who lived in an agrarian society. Being a carpenter (as Jesus was), any trades person, or a fisher person (as were some of the disciples) was not good for you in the patronage hierarchy because they were not connected to the land or society (21). Knowing a bit about the ways of the world when Jesus lived helps us see how radical his teachings really were. He did not try to gain prestige in the patronage system. Instead, he offered another way to be community or family. “There is but one patron, whose gifts are meant for all, and that is God” (23). Jesus is so important to us that this next quote may be a hard one to hear. I invite you to think about it. “Jesus was an expendable who cried out against the empire to which he meant nothing…Jesus became a victim of the empire, an example to anyone else who might dare to imagine another empire under another God” (30). Jesus offered hope and suggested another way of living together was possible. His vision was countercultural and reminds us to this day to look critically at the systems in place to see who is being helped and who is hurt. As is still the case in our day, people in power rarely want to give up their power. That was true of the Romans. Crucifixion was a common way to deal with those who dared to speak out against the authorities, and so Jesus was a victim of the Roman Empire.
Martyr-”The martyr’s death is vicarious insofar as it sets an example to be emulated by others. Its benefits are experienced through imitation. Jesus’ death became, in this tradition, the expression of obedience. He was no longer simply a victim. He died willingly, nobly, for a cause. His obedience unto death, “even death on a cross,” became a model for his followers who might also find themselves imprisoned, tortured, even executed for the cause of God’s new empire” (52). This chapter spends much time discussing the life of the one who is martyred. Jesus’ followers may not have considered him a martyr if they had not observed in his daily life a way of living that they wanted to embody. Before a martyr is killed, a martyr must truly live in a way that inspires us to continue to live in that same way. Steve summed it all up so well in the end of this chapter that I will use his words. “The courage to die for one’s convictions is preceded by the courage to live out one’s convictions. Martyrdom is not, finally, about death. It is about living life meaningfully, fully devoted to the things one believes in most deeply, free from the various fears, both profound and petty, that would usually dissuade one from such a course. To speak of Jesus as a martyr is to consider the values, ideas, and principles he lived and died for, and the God who comes to life in them, and to ask what it would take to bring that God to life once again in the lives we might lead. What would it cost to do this? Would it be worth it? Would it be worth everything?” (68).
Sacrifice-As a meat-eater who lives with a meat-lover, it was eye opening to think about sacrifice as the way the average person had access to meat in the ancient world. Also fascinating to me is how important socially it was to gather at the table and eat the sacrificed meat. Socially and as part of the patronage system it was expected that you would participate in the sacrifice by eating the meat. Your portions might be determined by your place in the hierarchy. To decide to not eat the sacrificed meat was saying no to your place at the table and your place in society. It was a sign of protest with personal, financial, and long-term implications. While we still use the word sacrifice today, we do not sacrifice animals anymore. When we do communion with its truest intend today, we are taking a countercultural approach by inviting everyone to join in and by having plenty for all. In communion, we can look back to our ancestors in the faith who turned away from the lives they knew to live in a new way (originally called the way).
I know that for some people this book may seem like heresy or blasphemy. Before writing it off, I invite you to engage with this book. Question it. Struggle with it. Get mad at it. Nod your head because it makes sense to you. Use this book as a way to grow deeper in your faith whether you agree or disagree with what is expressed on these pages. And with that in mind, I highly recommend this to anyone who has questions about Jesus’ death and resurrection. I recommend it to anyone who would like to know a little bit more about the time in which Jesus lived and what life was like in the early church. I recommend this book to anyone who is willing to wrestle with their faith knowing your questions and struggles will make your faith stronger.
I leave you with these words about what inspired Jesus’ first followers. “Their conviction about him began on a day long before his death, on an afternoon, or a morning, when, out of the blue, they heard Jesus say something, or saw him do something that moved them, deeply. In his company they came to know God. In his words they heard the Word of God. In his activity they experienced the empire of God. They became committed to him and his vision of a new empire, a new world coming into being. They believed in him. When he died, they knew that the Spirit of God they had experienced in his words and deeds was not thereby snuffed out. Their Jewish tradition of martyrdom and redemption gave them the words by which to proclaim this: God raised Jesus from the dead. Now, as the spiritual life of the community of his followers continued, they could speak of it not just as the life of the Spirit, or of God’s Spirit. It now became also life in the Spirit of Christ. The followers of Jesus did not believe in him because of the resurrection. They believed in the resurrection because they first believed in him and in the spiritual life he unleashed among them. That is, finally, what the resurrection proclamation is about. It is about the decision to believe in Jesus and to give oneself over to the Spirit to be discovered in his life” (121).