Sunday, April 5, 2009

Why Was Jesus Killed?

Critical historians are in agreement that the singular incident that made the Jerusalem officials resolve to hand Jesus over to the Romans for execution was his action of driving out those who were buying and selling in the temple (Mark 11:15-18; John 2:13-19). Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers, and he would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. The historian E.P. Sanders adds that the priests probably interpreted this action as a threat, on the part of Jesus, to destroy the temple. At the very least, Jesus warned of divine judgment against it.

In Mark 13:1-2, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple. In his trial before the Jerusalem officials, according to Mark (14:57-58) and Matthew (26:59-61), some persons testify that they heard Jesus utter a threat to destroy it. At the foot of the cross, some passers-by insult Jesus: “So! You who are going to destroy the temple…” (Mark 15:29; Mt 27:40). In Acts 6:12-14, “false witnesses” accuse the deacon, Stephen, that they “heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place [the temple].”

For Sanders, it is highly probable that Jesus did predict the destruction of the temple, and this prediction reached the ears of the chief priests. The destruction of the temple would imply the end of the Jerusalem priesthood, for the primary social role of the priests was to offer temple-sacrifices. This destruction implied the eradication of the high “place” or the eminent social stratum that the priests occupied in Jewish society (cf John 11:47-48), for the temple provided the most prominent justification for priestly authority.

Jesus did not plan to lead a group or a mob to do the actual work of destroying the temple. His prediction showed his belief that God would soon allow the temple’s destruction. Why did he believe that it deserved to be destroyed? Below are the possible reasons:

(1) The temple diverted people away from living a life in the Spirit, a life of sensitivity to the immediate presence of the sacred through which people could worship and please God without the necessity of big buildings and complex systems of worship.
(2) The temple promoted ethnocentrism and false worship, and it would be replaced by an assembly of people with authentic faith and love in their hearts.

(3) The temple system had already been promoting harmful and self-delusive attitudes, and it provided legitimation to the unjust social system.

The first reason fits with the historical portrait of Jesus as a Spirit-filled person who wanted to help people live a life of deep love and spiritual worship of God. In John 4:21-23, Jesus declares to the Samaritan woman: “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Mt Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem….A time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.” In the new heaven and new earth, when God’s Victory over viciousness and sin becomes fully visible, there will be no more temple (cf Revelation 21:22), no more massive and complex cultic structures. In Acts 7:48, Stephen asserts: “The Most High does not live in houses made by men.”

The second possible reason for divine judgement against the temple was its promotion of ethnocentrism and false worship. The temple was an institution that excluded many people. Admittance to the inner courts was restricted to Jews and only to those Jews who were ritually pure. Foreigners were threatened with death if they entered the inner courts. Jesus opposed ethnocentrism, and in his action in the temple, he quoted God’s word in Isaiah: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7; Mark 11:17). Jesus also opposed the hypocrisy and blindness of those guardians of the temple who regarded the gold, gifts, and offerings in the temple as more important than acts of justice and mercy to the poor and the weak (cf Matthew 23:16-26).

Under the aristocratic priests, the temple promoted false worship. The chief priests and the Sadducees were indifferent to the worsening hunger in the rural areas of Judaea and the growing indebtedness and dispossession of the peasantry. The temple officials aggravated the misery of the masses by keeping a record of the debts of those who could not fulfil their economic obligations to the temple such as the temple tax, agricultural taxes, purification offerings, sin and guilt offerings, and offerings for the redemption of first-born sons and animals. In the war against the Romans in 66-70 CE, Jewish rebels took over the temple, and one of their first acts was to burn the records of debt kept there.

In the face of worsening rural conditions, the Jerusalem élite had a general attitude of business-as-usual. As long as there continued to be many burnt offerings and sacrifices in the temple, and as long as the Romans left day-to-day control of Judaea in their hands, the élite were indifferent to the accumulating burdens of the peasantry. What was worse, in the face of worsening rural conditions, the high priestly families lived lavishly in mansions, as shown by the impressive archeological remains of their Jerusalem residences (see Horsley and Silberman, 78-79).

The magnificent rituals in the temple blinded the élite into thinking that, as long as the rituals continued to be magnificent, and as long as the élite themselves felt that they were ritually pure and holy, all would be well with the rest of Jerusalem and Judaea, and systematic attempts were not necessary to help lighten the burdens of the peasantry. Jesus saw what most of the élite no longer could see: the temple system promoted harmful and delusive attitudes.

Because of his prophetic pronouncements and actions especially about the destruction of the temple, Jesus was perceived to be a threat to the social power of the Jerusalem élite. Jesus’ actions suggested strongly to the high priest that he was a dangerous agitator at such a risky period as Passover. At that time, Passover was a pilgrimage festival and one of the three festivals that all male Jews were supposed to attend each year in Jerusalem (see Deuteronomy 16:16). The spread of the Jewish population, both inside and outside Palestine, meant that fulfilling all three obligations was no longer possible. Nevertheless, a lot of people attended each of the major festivals, and Passover was the most popular. Although Jewish law required only males to attend, many men brought their wives and children.

Sanders estimates that Jerusalem accommodated about 300,000 to 400,000 pilgrims during Passover. The large crowds meant that the festivals were possible occasions for civil unrest. Thus, the Roman governor, who usually stayed in the coastal city of Caesarea, would come to Jerusalem with extra troops for the occasion. Passover was always a risky event, as Jewish crowds gathered to celebrate their liberation from Egyptian oppressors, while they were aware that they were presently under Roman imperial rule.

The high priest would have been informed that Jesus was being hailed as a king by some people during his joyful entry into Jerusalem. That in itself would have been a serious cause for concern, for to allow some Jew to be acclaimed king could provoke the Romans to suspect that the high priest was allowing the agitation of a rebellion against Roman rule. The Roman governor would hold the high priest ultimately responsible for any breakdown of peace and order in Jerusalem. Also, if a riot broke out because of a carpenter who had pretensions to kingship, the Romans would be provoked to intervene militarily, and this in turn would provoke patriotic Jews to fight back. Such a situation could easily spin out of control, and many Jews could get killed.

The aristocratic priests had Jesus arrested. There is no agreement as to what exactly happened after the arrest and before the crucifixion itself. Some historians think that a trial before the Sanhedrin, the formal council of the high priest, could not have happened as related by Mark (14:53-65) and Matthew (26:57-68), for it was against Jewish law to hold a trial at night. In Luke, the trial was held “at daybreak” (22:66-71). In John’s account (18:19-24), there was no trial but an interrogation by Annas, the former high priest and the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the reigning high priest.

A brief consultation between Caiaphas and Pilate either before or after the arrest of Jesus would have been enough to secure his execution. Caiaphas was the longest-reigning high priest during the 1st century. Since from the year 6 CE onwards the Romans appointed and could easily replace the high priest, the lengthy reign of Caiaphas (18-36 CE) implied that he had good relations with the Romans.

According to Martin Hengel (Crucifixion in the Ancient World, 1977), crucifixion as a penalty was widespread in antiquity. It was a political and military punishment. The Romans inflicted it on political rebels and criminals from the lower social strata such as rebellious slaves and rural bandits. By the public display of a naked victim at a prominent place, crucifixion represented the utmost humiliation of the crucified. This shameful spectacle was aimed not only to deter others from rebellion and crime but also to magnify the power of the ruler who approved the execution. The shame was aggravated further by the fact that, quite often, the victims were never buried. It was standard practice to leave the hanging corpse to serve as food for wild beasts, scavenger dogs, and birds of prey.

Jesus and two others were taken outside the walls of Jerusalem, nailed to crosses, and left to die. It seems that a few of his female disciples watched from a distance (Mark 15:40), while his other disciples were in hiding. After the shameful execution of Jesus, his remains might have been buried hastily by some of his sympathizers or even by his enemies (cf Acts 13:28-29).

Sources Consulted:

Horsley, Richard and Neil Asher Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. New York, 1997.

Sanders, E.P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. London, 1995.

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