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Why Was Jesus Crucified?

April 6, 2012

On Good Friday (today), it’s appropriate to address the question of why Jesus was crucified.  Earlier this week on Radio 4 a well-meaning “thought for the day” presenter opined that Jesus’ problem was that he was just a helluva nice guy up against some mean old religious leaders.  They didn’t like his more free-wheeling “can’t we all just love one another” stance, and so . . . they just did him in.  But I would say that such a view seriously misrepresents Jesus, the religious leaders, and pretty much everything.

Also, how does such a nice guy as this sort of Jesus manage to get himself crucified?  The two main answers are typically either of the sort given by the presenter asserting  narrow-minded/jealous (Jewish) religious leaders (the sort of view that can all-too-easily slide over into rather recognizable anti-Semitic feeling), or (in some more recent publications) the notion that it was all a big mixup (as expressed, e.g., by J.D. Crossan and Geza Vermes).   So, Vermes proposed that “nervous authorities in charge of law and order” were alarmed by Jesus’ ill-timed “affray in the Temple” (the “Temple-cleansing” scene).  But it was a tragic error, and they over-reacted (Vermes, The Religion of Jesus, ix-x).  Crossan’s view is somewhat similar, though he only briefly addresses the question of Jesus’ crucifixion (curiously, in a large book about the “historical” Jesus).  He, too, focuses on Jesus’ action in “the confined and tinder-box atmosphere of the Temple at Passover,” proposing that this “could easily have led to arrest and execution” (Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 360).

Crossan’s Jesus is both a really nice guy, and also really humble, never seeing himself as having any special role or significance.  His was (in Crossan’s distinctive phrasing) “a brokerless kingdom” in which “open commensality” (sharing food) was the central gesture.

As I wrote a few years ago, “Miscarriages of justice are known, undeniably, even in jury-based trials in modern democracies.   But Vermes’ picture of things [and that of Crossan as well] would make notorious examples of court stupidity like the Dreyfus affair or the Dred Scott case minor blips by comparison.  They only led respectively to a prolonged national crisis in France and the American Civil War, whereas the crucifixion of Jesus led to the two thousand years of Christianity with all its positive and negative consequences!” (Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 58).

It’s important to note that Jesus didn’t simply die, he was killed, and not simply killed but executed, and not simply executed, he was crucified (despite the assurances of our Muslim friends to the contrary).   We know from other incidents (as, e.g., reported by Josephus) how the Temple authorities and Roman administration treated people who simply caused a disturbance in the Temple, and it wasn’t crucifixion.  Flogging, maybe but not crucifixion.  The point of crucifixion wasn’t simply to end a person’s life but, much more, to humiliate and degrade to the extreme, to say “See what this guy got?  This is what anyone gets who raises his hand against Rome!”

Pilate was a figure of uncertain character (as my colleague, Helen Bond judges in her book on him), probably not your favorite-uncle type, but he probably knew his job, which was primarily to keep order, keep the Jews in their place, and oversee tax-collection and Roman administration more generally.  A hard guy, probably, but not likely someone who crucified people on a whim.  He likely took stock of the situation and judged that Jesus had (whatever his intentions) generated what might be an incipient movement that could lead to greater trouble if not nipped in the bud forcefully.

As I’ve put it (in Lord Jesus Christ (esp. 54-56), Jesus rather clearly polarized people over what to make of him.  He “quickly became a figure of some notoriety and controversy” (LJC, 55).  Though his preaching seems to have focused on “the kingdom of God,” the issue quickly became whether he was or wasn’t the authentic spokesman of that kingdom.  And talk of “kingdom” could make ruling authorities worried.

Granted, it also seems likely that the Temple authorities colluded in some way in Jesus’ arrest and execution.  After all, the High Priest was appointed by Rome and served as Rome’s pleasure.  It would not go well for the Temple authorities if they were seen to ignore someone who seemed to challenge their authority and, by extension, that of Rome.

As I’ve argued (LJC, 54-55), the issue isn’t really what Jesus thought he was or what he intended.  It’s very hard to determine someone’s inner intentions and thoughts, after all.  The key thing, instead, and the more feasible question, is what effects and results his activities had on his contemporaries.  Some became his followers, willing to abandon their livelihoods to do so.  Others (including some powerful people) judged him dangerous, and eventually decided to move against him with mortal intent.  That’s what I’d call polarization!

So, however attractive to our own gentle instincts may be the sort of Jesus touted often, a guy who wouldn’t hurt a fly and just wanted everyone to be friends, we have to posit a Jesus who could get himself crucified.  And we should do so without caricatured Jewish leaders and Roman governor, and without invoking some legal goof-up.  Instead, probably everyone involved knew what they were doing.

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  1. ‘He likely took stock of the situation and judged that Jesus had (whatever his intentions) generated what might be an incipient movement that could lead to greater trouble if not nipped in the bud forcefully.’

    Obviously, he would not have touched the followers of Jesus.

    • Hmm. I’m not clear why “obviously”. One would proceed against anyone regarded as crucial to the movement, so crucial that his death would wrap it up. In Jesus’ case it was clear that his execution would suffice. (Boy, did Pilate get that one wrong!)

  2. ‘And talk of “kingdom” could make ruling authorities worried.’

    This is just so correct, it is worth repeating until people realise the truth of your words.

    Paul in Romans 13 points out ‘ Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.’

    If you are going to start demonstrations in the Temple, you really can’t complain if there are consequences. Talking about a kingdom was dangerous.

  3. John Moles permalink

    So what do you want us to say? One of the (many) problems of NT scholarship is its inability to make decisive decisions. Obviously, there are huge problems, inaccuracies and distortions in all the Gospel accounts of these events. But equally obviously (I would say), it’s the kingship issue that counts. If ‘are you king of the Jews?’ is the question (and denying that it was the question involves denying the ‘titulus’), it’s a very good question and a difficult one to answer, because the answer is: no, but yes. And that answer, at some level, and within some temporality, means: curtains for Roman rule over Judaea and curtains for the Roman Empire full stop. So one one level, Pontius Pilate is right to crucify Jesus. But equally, he is dreadfully wrong.

    • What you say makes a lot of sense, John. I’ve tended to focus on the outward, comparatively more traceable things, esp. the impact, results, impressions of Jesus by others. And the crucifixion suggests strongly that Pilate took him to be a royal (messianic) claimant (or that others were making such a claim about him).
      Oh, and is NT scholarship really all that much worse in its disagreements than other fields? Every time I get someone in another field to go into it they seem typically also to admit many different points of view.

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