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
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
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 ), no more massive and complex cultic structures. In Acts , 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 ). 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 -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
In the face of worsening rural conditions, the
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
Sanders estimates that
The high priest would have been informed that Jesus was being hailed as a king by some people during his joyful entry into
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 (-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
Horsley, Richard and Neil Asher Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World.
Sanders, E.P. The Historical Figure of Jesus.