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Jesus’ Death as a Prophet in Luke

In my previous post I argued that the author of the Gospel of Luke had changed the view that he found in his source, the Gospel of Mark, so that Jesus death, in Luke, is no longer an atoning sacrifice for sins.  I’ve always found this to be extraordinarily interesting.  Both the source for Luke’s Gospel, and the hero of his book of Acts – the apostle Paul – portrayed Jesus’ death as an atonement.  But Luke does not.

I’ve had several readers ask me: if Jesus’ death was not an atonement for Luke, then why did he die?

It’s a good question, but a complicated one.  There are several approaches to take in answering it.  Let me present two, which happen to coincide with one another at the end of the day.  The first has to do with the narrative plot of Luke’s Gospel, and the second has to do with his theology (as found in both his Gospel and Acts).

First, the plot.  It is beyond any doubt that Luke understands that Jesus *had* to die.  But why?  It’s for a different reason than for Mark.  In Mark, we saw that Jesus claimed, before his death, that he had to die as “a ransom for many.”   And when he gave cup of wine at the Last Supper, in Mark, he said that it represented his blood which would be “poured out for many.”  Strikingly, Luke has neither comment.  He took them both out.

And so why does Luke think Jesus had to die?  In terms of the plot…

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Anti-Judaism in the Gospel of Luke
Luke’s View of Jesus’ Death



  1. Avatar
    dragonfly  October 7, 2015

    Is Jesus death an atonement in matthew and john?

  2. NidalRabadi
    NidalRabadi  October 7, 2015

    Good day Dr. Bart,

    It seems that the Jewish religion was encapsulated the ethnic, national and religious identity of the people of Israel thus rendering it a non-missionary religion.

    Yet prophets like: Isaiah, Micah, Zechariah speak of the God of Israel who will be for all nations. They speak about the House of the Lord that will be set for all nations who in turn will seek both (the Lord and the House).

    – it in this frame that we should understand the message of Luke?

    – can we say that the apocalyptic Jews (Luke/Paul/even Peter) had advanced theology that accepted the introduction of non Jews into the court of their God?

    – How can we reconcile Jesus behavior with the Canaanite woman and his preaching that the law should be kept, with his new message that replaced the eye-for-an-eye concept with forgiveness and that the Son Of Man is the master of the Sabbath and that the Sabbath is made for man, and to crown it all with the teachings attributed to him that the Kingdom of God will be given to another nation (non Jews) so it can bear fruit. Is this the historical Jesus teaching in full? or partially? or not at all? (Did Jesus develop his understanding of his message to evolve to include non Jews?).

    Thank you and happy birthday!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2015

      I’m afraid I can answer only one question at a time! But I do think that the Gentiles being incorporated into the people of God was indeed a common motif among the early apocalyptic Christians

      • Avatar
        Adam0685  October 10, 2015

        An interesting book that looks at second temple judaism and the gentiles is ‘Judaism and the Gentiles Jewish Patterns of Universalism (to 135 CE)’ by Terence L. Donaldson

        • NidalRabadi
          NidalRabadi  October 11, 2015

          Thank you Adam.

          I will try to look for an e-version of the book.

      • NidalRabadi
        NidalRabadi  October 11, 2015

        Thank you Dr. Bart.

        Did Jesus conviction (religious ideas) change from being someone believing firmly in a Jews-only version to a universal version or we have no evidence of that?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 12, 2015

          No, I don’t think he thought beyond the Jewish people

  3. Avatar
    godspell  October 7, 2015

    Luke also was the one who created the story that Jesus and John the Baptist were first cousins, which isn’t mentioned in any of the other narratives–a whole family of prophets! Trying to tie it all together, and perhaps co-opt the still existing Cult of The Baptist, which believed John had been the Messiah.

    It’s funny that when a certain brand of conspiracy theorist tries to say “The story of Jesus’ birth was cribbed from pagan mythology”, they forget that there were multiple miraculous conceptions in the Old Testament as well. Muslims still remember it, of course–a virgin birth would just be one way for God to bring a great prophet into the world.

    It doesn’t seem they could ever just say “This is a holy man.” They had to come up with a specific designation for him–find his place in the hierarchy of the blessed.

    I often think Jesus was less concerned with this–he’s supposed to have said “No one born of woman is greater than John the Baptist”, and how does that make any sense if Jesus is the divinely begotten Son of God? He was still born of a woman. Therefore not greater than John. The gospel writers would not have wished him to have said that, particularly when they were arguing with those who followed John, so odds are he did say something like that. To show respect to his teacher, the man who had shown him the way. But probably not his first cousin.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 7, 2015

    That’s a satisfactory explanation of why Luke thought Jesus “had to die” – but then, how did he account for the resurrection? None of the earlier prophets supposedly rose from the dead, did they?

    I still think what I, in my younger days, took the understanding of the “Jesus story” to be (without my necessarily having *believed* it), makes more sense. He rose from the dead – a stunning phenomenon that had never happened before, and would never happen again – to *prove he was God*, and everyone should therefore heed his teachings (which he’d already communicated to his disciples). And he’d died in the most public of ways so there could be no *doubt* that he’d risen from the dead.

    I suspect I got that idea because my Catholic teachers believed something along those lines, and barely mentioned the “atonement” concept.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2015

      Yes, Luke did see Jesus as special, and certainly thought he had been raised. In addition to being a prophet, he was uniquely the son of God.

  5. Robert
    Robert  October 7, 2015

    For those who follow the two-source hypothesis, it is interesting that Luke 4,16-30 is expanding upon the Isaiah citation in Q 7,22-27 and Lk 13,34-35 is a Q saying. So, if you believe in the older Q-source, Luke’s theology may be based on a very early prophet christology that was contemporary to Paul’s early high christology.

  6. Avatar
    Scott  October 7, 2015

    Will you be addressing Acts 20:28 or is it evem significant enough to devote “ink’ to?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2015

      Maybe I should. It is the one apparent exception. The problem is that the reason I think it is *NOT* an exception is very hard to explain in non-technical terms. I’ll think about it. (I discuss it in Orthodox Corruption)

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 7, 2015

    P.S. to previous: I realize people living 2000 years ago believed “miracle workers” could and did “raise people from the dead” – even if no one they actually knew had ever seen it done.

    But I’m sure that when I was growing up, Catholics never said Jesus had been “raised” from the dead. They said he *rose*, of his own power! A significant difference.

  8. Avatar
    Everythingmustgo65  October 7, 2015

    Bart, Just wondering if Mark is the earlier gospel and aligns with Paul’s teaching on atonement, would this indicate to being the earlier Christian beliefs of the movement that was then changed/added to overtime? Also is there any historical evidence that there was dissatisfaction with the Jewish religious system and an incentive to bring an end to it’s laws/bondage? I often see this a little in scripture when Jesus challenges the Pharisees rules.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2015

      I would say that different Christians had different views at different times, and different Christians also had different views all at the same time! So it’s probably not a straight linear development consistently from one set of beliefs to another.

  9. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  October 7, 2015


    So, when Jesus says “This is my body that is given for you…” in Luke, what does it mean?

    Thank you, as always.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2015

      What I’m arguing is that those words “that is given for you” were not originally in Luke, but were added later. That’s precisely the theology that Luke is lacking (the idea of an atonement for others)

      • Avatar
        gabilaranjeira  October 8, 2015

        Yes, of course. Sorry…

  10. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  October 7, 2015

    The savior is saying this ?


    Does Zeus have anything to do with this ? So the savior knew about Zeus and hades and Tartaros or was it just the authors understanding ? Or is it the savior affiliated with Zeus

    And gospel of Thomas line ( logion ) 30 what is being said ?

    The savior answered and said, “Truly I tell you that he who will listen to your word and turn away his face or sneer at it or smirk at these things, truly I tell you that he will be handed over to the ruler above who rules over all the powers as their king, and he will turn that one around and cast him from heaven down to the abyss, and he will be imprisoned in a narrow dark place. Moreover, he can neither turn nor move on account of the great depth of Tartaros and the heavy bitterness of Hades that is steadfast […] them to it […] they will not forgive […] pursue

  11. Avatar
    shakespeare66  October 8, 2015

    So Luke wanted to see Jesus as a Jewish messiah, and appears to be arguing that he is?

  12. Avatar
    JSTMaria  October 8, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman…maybe you will address this in your next post, but why was Jesus’ death considered an *atoning* sacrifice if he was made out to be the Passover lamb? I thought Passover was about liberation from Egypt and that atonement was an altogether different thing related to the Day of Atonement in Judaism. ???

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2015

      I’d say that some saw Jesus as an atoning sacrifice, others as the Passover lamb, and others as both at once! But you’re right, it is curious since the Passover was not an atonement

  13. Avatar
    Hank_Z  October 8, 2015

    Bart, did we achieve even a modicum of success in helping on your birthday?

  14. Avatar
    gavriel  October 8, 2015

    Since there seems to a conflict between the theology of Luke and that of Paul, is it likely that Luke never read his letters? Is Acts basically produced from other sources than Paul’s letters?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2015

      It’s much debated, but my view is precisely that: Luke had not read the letters.

  15. Avatar
    haoleboy26  October 8, 2015

    In Luke, Jesus laments the residents of Jerusalem stoning its prophets. Is it really the case that a lot of the Jewish prophets died at the hands of the people to whom they were preaching?

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 10, 2015

    So much of what you have taught me, and so many others, depends on Mark being the first and John being the last Gospels written. I certainly understand that the Gospels were most likely written after the death of Paul, otherwise Paul would have known about them and quoted them, and after the destruction of the temple, since this destruction is described in the Gospels, and that Matthew and Luke contain portions of Mark, but what other evidence do scholars use to date the Gospels? Thanks. A reference or two would suffice.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2015

      I should probably post on this again; but if you want to see what I’m going to say (!) see my post from a long time ago, May 7, 2012, on just this question.

  17. Avatar
    Rosekeister  October 10, 2015

    “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you.” And in fact he is quite explicit: “It cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.”

    Is this an indication that Luke is probably a gentile? I doubt many Jewish people would agree with his sentiment. It looks more like a gentile belief that arose because Jesus was killed in Jerusalem. A trend has been made out of one death to justify Christianity rapidly becoming more of a gentile phenomenon.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 10, 2015

      It is often taken that way, though plenty of Jews are against fellow Jews!

  18. Avatar
    Bwana  November 30, 2015

    Dr. Bart, you’re using the similarity between Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and the account of the birth of the prophet Samuel as an indication that Luke tried to depict Jesus as a Jewish prophet. Yet in a later blog you make the case that the birth narrative was a later addition. Doesn’t that somehow invalidate this particular argument?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2015

      No, not really: I’m just arguing that whoever wrote those chapters that are now in Luke had this view about the relationship to Samuel.

  19. Avatar
    SkepticsRUs  January 11, 2016

    Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 – for which Paul, who was then Saul, seems the most likely source – would appear to fit Luke’s perspective on Jesus as a prophet. Stephen makes no mention of the Resurrection but does place Jesus squarely in the line of prophets that the Hebrews rejected and killed (Acts 7:52).

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