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Does the Book of Acts Underplay the Significance of Jesus’ Death?

One of the things that I have found most interesting about doing the blog over these, lo, past five and a half years is that when I decide to write a post on something, I often realize that I need to provide some background that involves something else that, on the surface, may seem unrelated, but that is crucial for understanding the point I want to make.  Which leads me to a different topic and then to another, and so on.    I suppose that’s why I still haven’t run out of things to say (yet); I *thought* I’d have nothing to write about after six months.  But it hasn’t happened yet.

I’ve been talking about the sects within Judaism because I wanted to make a simple point about how widespread the views of “resurrection” were at the time of Jesus and Paul.   This morning it occurred to me that it would be helpful to illustrate the conflict between Sadducees and Pharisees over the issue, as exemplified in a famous passage in Acts 22 where the Apostle Paul manages to split the Sanhedrin by pitting these two groups against each other over whether at the end of time there would be a resurrection or not.

Then I realized that I would have to explain the intriguing and hardly ever noticed (outside of scholarship) point that Paul’s message in Acts is largely about Jesus’ resurrection, not about his death.   That is somewhat odd, given the fact that Paul himself – who does of course say a lot about Jesus’ resurrection – locates the key moment of salvation in Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice (without a resurrection, of course, no one would know it was an atoning sacrifice; but the resurrection itself is not what brings salvation for Paul: the death does, as confirmed in the mighty act of God in the resurrection.)

And then I recognized that I should explain how that in fact is what scholars have long said about the book of Acts, that the idea that Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sins is almost completely lacking – unlike in Paul, and in Mark and Matthew, and 1 Peter, etc.   What Acts focuses on is not Jesus’ death, but his resurrection.   Some scholars have accused the author of Acts of underplaying the importance of the crucifixion in order to promote a “theology of glory.”  What really matters is not Jesus’ suffering, but his victory over death.  The death of Jesus is just a prelude to what really mattered (for Luke): the resurrection.

At first you might think that’s nonsense, but …

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Did Luke Have a Doctrine of the Atonement? Mailbag September 24, 2017
Two Other Ancient Jewish Sects



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    flshrP  September 22, 2017

    ” In fact, it is almost always portrayed not as an atoning sacrifice but (simply) as a miscarriage of justice.  Jesus was innocent.  His execution was unjust and unfair.  The Jewish leaders – indeed, the Jewish people – had Jesus’ killed on false charges, but God reversed their actions by raising him from the dead, so now it is clear he is the one in whom one must believe.”

    “Jesus was innocent”. These three words reminds me of a line from the Clint Eastwood masterpiece “Unforgiven” in which this piece of dialog occurs:

    Strawberry Alice: You just kicked the shit out of an innocent man.
    Little Bill Daggett: Innocent? Innocent of what?

    From the Roman POV Jesus was guilty of sedition (calling himself king of the Jews) and was legally executed according to Roman law. It was not a miscarriage of justice in Roman eyes. The charges were not false. This seditious talk very likely is what Judas revealed to the high priests who passed it on to Pilate, namely, the private teachings of Jesus to his apostles in which he claimed to be the Messiah, the king of the Jews.

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      Wilusa  September 24, 2017

      But…it’s at least possible that Jesus *never did* call himself the future “King of the Jews”! I know Bart thinks he probably did (only among his disciples). But if Judas had turned against him – for whatever reason – he might have lied about Jesus’s having made a specific claim that would be punishable by death. (Jesus might have used only the term “Messiah,” whose meaning was more vague.)

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        heronewb  October 2, 2017

        What is the consensus on Judas? Was he likely to have really been a desciple that betrayed Jesus, or is it something else? I always found it suspicious that his name meant “Jews” and that he coincidentally betrayed him. I would guess it was more likely he was betrayed by a random person (i.e. Not necessarily one of the closest) or that nobody betrayed him, and he eventually just got brazen enough to begin to say “yea, you know what guys? I am the messiah?” As long as the Roman’s understood that the messiah figure was a king, claiming to be the messiah would be sedition.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 3, 2017

          Yes, it’s usually thought that he was an actual figure, one of Jesus’ closest followers who betrayed (something about) him. See my book The Gospel of Judas Iscariot.

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          Wilusa  October 4, 2017

          I also used to think “Judas” might have been a name chosen as an indictment of “the Jews.” I think it was Bart who convinced me otherwise. The arguments? The name we render as Judah, Jude, or Judas was extremely common, so it wasn’t unlikely that the betrayer could have been named that. But “Iscariot” was extremely *un*common – heard only in this context. Yet all the earliest writers mention it. (Except Paul. He seems not to know about the betrayal; but at the early date when he met some of Jesus’s disciples, they could have been trying to keep new followers from learning about it, because they found it embarrassing.)

          The meaning of “Iscariot” seems to be that either Judas or his father came from a hamlet named Kerioth, in southern Judea. Judas wouldn’t have had to be *there* when he learned by word of mouth about a preacher in faraway Nazareth! He and Jesus could, at the same time, have been short-term followers of John the Baptist. (On a map I saw, it seems the distance between Kerioth and Jerusalem was slightly *less* than between *Nazareth* and Jerusalem.) And Jesus may have told other followers he was planning to begin preaching in Galilee.

          Ideas I’ve been toying with: Suppose Judas betrayed Jesus to the Temple priests. He may have had a stricter upbringing than Jesus – believed *any* offensive behavior in the Temple was a sacrilege that should be punishable by death. He had no problem with Jesus’s saying the Temple would be destroyed in the future, after God had left it. But in their time, he made no distinction between overturning a few tables and violating the Holy of Holies.

          Here, I’m speculating that the priests ignored most claims, by harmless fanatics, to be the “Messiah.” For them, it had come to mean just a vague “savior.” But when they *wanted* to have the claimant executed, they told the Roman authorities its original meaning (an “anointed” *king*), never letting on how frequently they’d ignored it.

          Or: Maybe the priests weren’t involved at all, and Judas betrayed Jesus directly to the Romans (here too, exaggerating the meaning of “Messiah”). He may have turned against Jesus, not because of anything having to do with the Temple, but because he’d come to believe Jesus was thinking more about an exalted role for *himself* than about what the coming “Kingdom” would mean for everyone. Judas might have believed only in the “Kingdom,” not in *any* kind of “Messiah.”

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          Wilusa  October 5, 2017

          By the way, I like to imagine Judas believed he was in the right, never had a moment’s regret, and went on to have a long and reasonably happy life. There’s no proof that *wasn’t* the case! The accounts of his death are inconsistent, at least one of them wildly implausible. And it’s understandable that Jesus’s followers would have portrayed him as an archvillain, who “got his just deserts” by dying in some horrible way.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  September 24, 2017

      I’m assuming “Messiah” had come to mean little more than “savior”…that so many fanatics had called themselves the “Messiah” that the term wasn’t taken seriously.

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    Judith  September 22, 2017

    This is random here, I know (!!!) but may I just say your birthday is coming up (October 5th). I know you would love donations instead of cards etc. given the fact that the blog is all about helping those less fortunate. So, here’s wishing you lots of birthday-greeting donations. 🙂 Will send mine next week.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2017

      Right!! I think I’ll make that as a suggestion!

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  September 25, 2017

        Or we could each give a gift subscription in honor of your birthday.

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    crucker  September 22, 2017

    Wow, I had never noticed this before. Would you say this view of Jesus being made Lord/Christ at his resurrection is compatible with Luke’s gospel since it’s the same author? Or is Peter’s speech departing from Luke’s theology/Christology? Likewise, is the idea of repenting and being baptized without believing/faith consistent with Luke too?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2017

      I think I’ll say something about this in a full post on the blog!

  4. Lev
    Lev  September 22, 2017

    I’ve heard that the Eastern Orthodox church places a much greater emphasis on the resurrection than the western Church – that they place the death and especially the resurrection of Christ in the very centre of their Christianity, whereas the western Church seems to focus on the cross with the resurrection as a happy after thought.

    It sounds like Acts is saying the eastern Orthodox church is closer to Christianity in it’s earliest form, but would you agree that we in the west have been conditioned into reading Paul in a certain way, and have missed his heavier emphasis on the resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2017

      I’m not sure. The resurrection seems to be a bigger deal in the West too. Compare church attendance on Good Friday vs. Easter, e.g.

    • Avatar
      Duke12  October 4, 2017

      The main Paschal (Easter) hymn for all Eastern Orthodox Churches is: “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” (Orthodox Church in America translation of the Greek/Slavonic).

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    RonaldTaska  September 22, 2017

    Wow! It is a big difference and one about which I knew nothing.

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    Wilusa  September 22, 2017

    When I was growing up (raised Catholic), I somehow picked up the notion that crucifixion was the most horrific possible kind of execution, and *Jesus was the only person who’d ever been subjected to it*!

    But *beyond* that, all the emphasis was on his *resurrection*. A once-in-all-of-history miracle that had indisputably taken place, and “proved he was God.” I’m sure I was taught that he *rose* from the dead, of his own power; it wasn’t necessary that God the Father “raise” him.

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    godspell  September 22, 2017

    When preaching to gentile pagans, it makes sense to focus on the resurrection to some extent–it’s a big impressive event (that nobody can prove happened, but that’s true of many many things gentile pagans believed in).

    If it was Luke who wrote acts, it does seem consistent with him to focus more on a glorified Jesus than a suffering one.

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    UCCLMrh  September 22, 2017

    “In other words, they are to realize that they have committed a horrible sin against God by crucifying Jesus (even though none of them crucified Jesus) and turn back to God in repentance, then join the Christian community.” This raises a point I find interesting. It appears that for the Jews at that time, religion was something that nations do, not so much individuals acting on their own as individuals. When individuals performed religious acts, it was in their role as members of a nation. The judgments were focused on nations more than on individuals. So the point of this passage did indeed make sense, that the Jewish nation crucified Jesus and they, acting in representation of their nation, should repent.

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    Wilusa  September 22, 2017

    The wording of the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended into Hell. On the third day he arose again from the dead. He ascended into Heaven…” The implication is that Jesus did all those things of his own volition, by his own choice.

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    Todd  September 22, 2017

    When you publish your book on the afterlife I wonder how positively it will be received within traditional church circles. I say this because there seems to be no single definitive answer to the question, “what is the afterlife?” and, for that matter, there seems to be no single definition for most of the major doctrinal issues to be found in Christian scriptures…what is salvation, what is repentance, who or what is God, how does one pray and what do we pray for, what and where is “heaven,” and so on.

    Yes, these issues are discussed but the answered seem to be widely diverse.

    Your comment today, at the end of the post, “Salvation in Acts does not come by faith in Christ’s death. It comes by feeling guilty for sin, repenting of it, and turning to the God who raised Jesus from the dead” is but one of many different ways of understanding Salvation.

    Regarding the afterlife, I can not say “The Bible say THIS about It since there are many views of what the afterlife is (even if there is one at all).

    Last year my wife witnessed an interesting discussion at her small church book club meeting, while reading a popular book about Heaven. Two of the ladies started quarreling about which of them had the most jewels in the “Crown of Heaven” referring to one passing comment in the book of James (I think it was).

    That incident made me realise, out of the insanity of the discussion, how fanciful and rediculus some of these popular beliefs can be.

    Evidently there are groups devolved to the jewels in the Crown Of Heaven !!

    I guess I am just wondering how you can overcome the deeply rooted beliefs that are entrenched in the contemporary churches regarding the afterlife. Some of these beliefs are so deeply held that nothing you can say will ever change their minds.

    I’m wondering if you have a battle plan to knock down many of these various misconceptions or if your approach is to just present what scripture says (and doesn’t say) about the afterlife and leave it an open ended issue that we will never understant until we die.

    I guess my question is this: are you going the try to give an answer to “Is the concept of an afterlife definitely defined in Christian scriptures” and “Is that definition the same or different from the current popular notion that when we die we either go to a place called Heaven or a place called Hell to experience eternal pleasure or torment” ?

    You’ve got a big job ahead of you 😁

  11. tompicard
    tompicard  September 22, 2017

    I appreciate this valuable post.
    I wish more/any Christian ministers would recognize that the crucifixion was a terrible crime and completely opposite to God’s Will.

    you note that
    >Some scholars have accused the author of Acts of
    > underplaying the importance
    > of the crucifixion in order to promote a “theology of glory.”

    I think just the opposite, Paul and most ministers overplay the importance of the crucifixion as some kind of a victory. They should really consider how illogical they sound.

    Do you know any Christian teachers who feel Jesus’ murder was a mistake?
    Did you, as a minister, ever explain this viewpoint to your congregation?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2017

      I’m sure some highly intelligent Christian scholars think Jesus’ death was a miscarriage of justice that God reversed. When I was a minister, I simply maintained that different Gospels had different views of the matter.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  September 25, 2017

        I take Paul’s reveling in the Cross as an act of defiance. It was an undeniable fact, to anyone who knew of Jesus, that his life ended violently and in shame, so Paul upends it by calling it glorious. It is a common strategy in business and politics to take your most obvious weakness and call it an asset.

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    Pattycake1974  September 22, 2017

    Regarding the Philippians hymn–do you think it was first written down, then circulated orally, rather than transmitted orally, then written later? I read somewhere (can’t remember now) that hymns and poems, in particular, begin in written form then are transmitted orally second.

    Luke’s claim that Jesus was made both Christ and Lord at his resurrection may partly go back to his knowledge of the Philippians hymn, yet he didn’t believe Jesus to be preexisting. He doesn’t really go along with Paul on all points either. In one way, it’s as though he’s trying to be fair and accurate as possible with his work while at the same time creating fiction.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2017

      I really don’t know — I’m not sure there’s anyway to decide.

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      Tony  September 24, 2017

      Yes, Philippians 2:6-11 describes the death of the pre-existent celestial son who became in the likeness of a human and was sacrificed by being hanged from a stake or tree (stauros). The hymn says not where or when.

      The hymn uses the Greek word genomai twice. First in v7 where it is translated as “born”. The second is in v8 where it is translated as “becoming”. Similar issue as Paul’s “born of a woman”. The hymn fits both Paul’s Jesus and the Ascension of Isaiah.

      • Bart
        Bart  September 25, 2017

        Note: the ginomai in Phil. 2:7, 8 is the same as in Galatians 4:4.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  September 26, 2017

        I added a work of scholarship to my Amazon wishlist for the Ascension of Isaiah that was written just last year. Thought you might be interested in reading it: The Ascension of Isaiah (Studies on Early Christian Apocrypha) Paperback – March 2, 2016 by JN Bremmer (Author, Editor), TR Karmann (Editor), T Nicklas (Editor).

        Interestingly enough, Bremmer also wrote a book about the afterlife.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  September 27, 2017

        One thing about the hymn is that it says Jesus became Lord after his resurrection not before. And, of course, Paul also likely believed Jesus to be an preexisting angel. From what I understand when reading The Ascension, the not yet named Jesus is the Lord at the start and only becomes an angel when instructed to do so by the Father. That does not correlate with Paul’s theology.

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    ardeare  September 22, 2017

    On another note, throw out the Trinity, add in a pre-existence, give Jesus free will, and the passage flows downstream with a gentle wind at its back.

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    Tom  September 22, 2017

    You have said that there are those Xtns who emphasize redemption and there are those who emphasize atonement.

    Does this go back to crucifixion versus resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2017

      I wouldn’t differentiate between redemption and atonement. ATonement is *one* way that one could imagine redemption.

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    Philmonomer  September 22, 2017


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    caesar  September 22, 2017

    I have spent a lot of time looking in the gospels for teachings on the atonement. I could only find 5 passages (really more like 2, because they are parallel).

    1,2) Mt 20:28/Mk 10:45 Son of Man’s (Jesus?) life as a ransom for many.
    Luke omits this quote

    3) Mt 26:28–this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
    4) Mk 14:24–This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
    5) Lk 22:20 This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

    Are you saying that Luke (in Acts and in his gospel) is diverging from Matthew and Mark re the atonement? If so, what does Lk 22:20 suggest, if not the atonement?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2017

      See today’s post!!!

      • Avatar
        caesar  September 24, 2017

        I’m famous! 🙂
        Wow, that’s mind blowing to me…I always though Luke was the most theologically similar to Paul, of the three gospel writers.

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    billw977  September 22, 2017

    Interesting. Never seen that or thought of it before. In your previous posts you were concerned about whether someone would want to read a book about the afterlife. For me, probably not, but these kind of things in this post, yes. It’s these kind of writings and revelations that made me want to read your books, to show me I’m not crazy when I’ve questioned or had doubts about problems in the Bible.

  18. Avatar
    toejam  September 22, 2017

    Two quickies: At the time of Jesus… 1) Was Galilee typically considered part of “Judea”? 2) Did Galilean Jews typically pay the Jerusalem Temple Tax?

  19. dschmidt01
    dschmidt01  September 23, 2017

    Do scholars have a theory why Saul/Paul really quit persecuting Christians and became Christianity’s chief proponent? I assume they don’t really believe Jesus actually appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. For one thing how could Jesus make an appearance after his ascension? Thanx

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2017

      It is usually claimed that it was because he believed he had a vision of Jesus alive, long after his death. (Christian scholars would say that he actually did have the vision; others would say that he thought he did)

  20. Avatar
    JamesSnappJr  September 23, 2017


    BE: “They are to realize that they have committed a horrible sin against God by crucifying Jesus (even though none of them crucified Jesus) and turn back to God in repentance, then join the Christian community.”

    Don’t you think that Luke’s intention is for people to realize that from a certain point of view, the people in the crowd on Pentecost, and the readers of the book of Acts, *did* crucify Jesus, by committing the sins that put them into moral debt which Jesus came to square up?

    Also, do you think that perhaps the reason why we don’t see a repetitive emphasis on the crucifixion in Acts (though I think perhaps you minimize; Peter mentions the crucifixion in 2:23, and in 3:15, and in 4:10) is that it was already covered in the Gospel of Luke? Having already presented Jesus as one whose blood is poured out for His followers, it does not seem surprising that Luke does not repeat that over and over in Acts, like an algebra textbook-writer who does not constantly remind readers that 2+2=4.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2017

      Yes, possibly Luke has something like that in mind. But it’s worth noting that in the apostle’s missionary speeches addressed to *gentiles* they don’t take this line, which makes it look like the death of Jesus was blamed on Jews alone. That, of course, has troubling implications.
      And I don’t think Luke’s Gospel does have any indication that Jesus blood was poured out for his followers; Mark’s and Matthew’s do — but not Luke’s.

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