A book of interest for interpreting the death of Christ is the 2004 publication by Stephen J. Patterson, Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Patterson, Professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary, argues that Christian theology has mistakenly attempted to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus apart from his life. He illustrates by asking us to imagine how off the mark it would be to assess the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by focusing on his assassination and ignoring his life and leadership in the civil rights movement.
Patterson focuses on three categories that help understand how the death of Jesus was seen by early Christians and utilized to demonstrate the significance of his life: 1) Victim; 2) Martyr; 3) Sacrifice.
Especially helpful is his discussion of the Noble Death tradition in antiquity. He notes David Seeley's study of Hellenistic literature on the topic which contains five key ideas:
1. The one who dies nobly dies in obedience to his/her principles
2. The hero overcomes physical vulnerability, facing torture and death without fear
3. Loyalty is often at stake in the death
4. The death is seen as vicarious for others in that it may be imitated
5. There are sacrificial overtones in the description of the death
Patterson points out that the Noble Death idea certainly influenced Jewish writers of the period, with perhaps the best example found in Fourth Maccabees. In essence, the martyr's death expresses obedience and is vicarious in that it sets an example for others to follow.