For important recent studies of the interweaving of history and theology in the Gospel stories of Jesus’ death, see Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1994), and John Dominic Crossan, Who Killed Jesus? (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995). These two books argue for quite different positions and represent a spectrum of opinion in contemporary scholarship.


This phrase is from the fourth-century Nicene Creed. An interesting fact suggests the centrality of Jesus’ death in Christian tradition: His death is the only part of his adult life mentioned in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds, the two creeds most widely used by Christians.


The “substitutionary” or “satisfaction” understanding of the atonement, as it is commonly known, is first found in fully developed form in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? (1097). According to Anselm, humankind (because of our disobedience and sin) owes an infinite debt to God, which Jesus’ sacrificial death pays on our behalf, thereby making reconciliation (at-one-ment) with God possible.


For the psychological difficulty, see John Knox, The Death of Christ (New York: Abingdon, 1958), pp. 52–76.


Technically, the site of execution was just outside the walls of Jerusalem. The time and place of his death make it natural for the author of John’s Gospel to refer to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” and to present the time of Jesus’ death as coinciding exactly with the slaying of the Passover lambs.


There are striking connections between this metaphorical reading of “Jesus died for our sins” and Jesus himself. In his teaching and actions, Jesus affirmed the immediacy of access to God, apart from any institutional monopoly and apart from the categories of pure and impure. For this emphasis, see especially John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991), and Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994); and my Jesus: A New Vision (1987) and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994), all published by HarperSanFrancisco.