Friday, March 21, 2008

Execution day


At right, "The Three Crosses," by Rembrandt


Sometime on the Friday after Passover, almost 2,000 years ago, Roman soldiers, acting on orders of Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, took Jesus of Nazareth to a low hill outside Jerusalem and crucified him to death. As crucifixion deaths went, Jesus' death came pretty quickly, within a few hours. It was not unusual for victims to linger on the cross for days.

There were two criminals also crucified alongside Jesus. Because it was Passover week, emotions ran high among the Jews who had made pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the holy observances. There were many thousands of pilgrims there, some historians say more than 100,000. At sunset on Fridays the Jewish Sabbath began then as now, and even hardened Roman soldiers were uneasy about the execution of these men continuing when the Sabbath began during this particular week. So they decided to break the victims' legs in order to make quick their suffocation to death. Crucifixion is, after all, a form of hanging, killing by suffocation. With their legs broken, the victims could not push up to take a breath and so would die a quick, though brutal death ("excruciating" derives from the same root as "crucifixion," and it is no accidental relationship).

But when they came to Jesus to break his legs, they discovered he had already died. Another soldier, probably more experienced and thus leaving nothing to chance, took his long spear and plunged it into Jesus' side, almost certainly penetrating his heart, since that would have been the whole point of spearing him to begin with.

Before sundown, the Romans permitted some of Jesus' friends to retrieve his body and entomb it.

One of the vexing problems about Jesus' execution is that we really don't know exactly why Jesus was crucified. Of course, we know why the Romans crucified people - political offense against the empire - but just what Jesus did, or was accused of doing, relating to that is unclear. Even stipulating that the Jewish high council, the Sanhedrin, wanted to be quit of Jesus, they could have ordered him stoned to death for religious offenses without getting the Romans involved. The Gospels are clear enough that religious charges against Jesus not only could easily be made, they were made.

"Ecce homo" - Behold, the man.

Whatever the reason, Pilate became persuaded that Jesus was defying the emperor's authority and so was guilty of a political offense against Rome. Pilate, we know from Roman historians, was a weak man, inclined to violence to solve his problems, and was unskilled as a procurator. In fact, most modern historians have concluded that Judea had the singular misfortune among Roman provinces to suffer uncharacteristically inept Roman governance for several decades, including those on both ends of Jesus' life. Certainly, Pilate thought almost nothing of crucifying Jews; during Jesus' own lifetime Pilate had sentenced hundreds, probably thousands, of Jews to the cross and had killed numberless more by other means. So one more was not even a statistic. (Jesus himself spoke of a time when Pilate had sent his cavalry, swords swinging, into a group of men making sacrifices, killing the lot of them, for reasons not related. Pilate seems to have been extremely paranoid about crowds of Jews who gathered for any reason.)

Somehow, perhaps with the Sanhedrin's collusion, perhaps not, Pilate became convinced that Jesus was a political insurrectionist, trying to claim the throne of David. A hugely false claim, of course, and one that Jesus easily and directly refuted under Pilate's own questioning. John's Gospel, chapter 18, relates that Pilate said to Jesus, "Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?"
Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."
If Jesus had been a claimant to the throne of David, he would have built not only a popular base of support, but an armed faction. He had the former (but not as much as we prefer to think - chapter 10 of John reports that Jesus so angered a crowd he was speaking to that they "took up stones again to stone him," but "he escaped.") At any rate, Jesus swatted aside Pilate's interrogatory about Jesus' presumed kingship so that Pilate did not raise it again with him. He did poke the Sanhedrin in the eye with that presumption by placing a sign on Jesus' cross that mocked them, not Jesus, by saying, "This is the King of the Jews."

So what was the chain of events was that led Jesus to be executed? Only one Gospel states the case fairly clearly, the Gospel of John. In it, Jesus is presented as raising Lazarus, dead and entombed for four days, from death back to life (John 11). When word of this deed reached the high priest, Caiaphas, he became deeply fearful that Pilate would (in character) slaughter countless Jews as a consequence - not for raising Lazarus, but because of the enormous following Jesus would doubtless gain as a result. John relates,
So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ ... So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
The other three Gospels don't mention Lazarus' raising and are not clear just what Jesus did or said that got him into trouble with the Sanhedrin. But John presents a case (by some inference) that the Sanhedrin believed that Jesus would indeed make a political power play that would inevitably lead Pilate to "go Roman" on Judea. This was an entirely justified fear, justified, that is, only if Jesus really did have political ambitions. But he didn't.

My homiletics professor once lectured that one thing the Easter story proves is that sin, and the will to sin, is more deeply rooted in human beings than we really can imagine. Roman justice, he pointed out, was the best system of justice the world had ever seen until then; after all, it still forms the basis for most Western jurisprudence today. And among the lands and peoples of the empire, he said, the Jews were enormously respected for their religion, which was considered ancient even way back then. In the case of Jesus (his point being), the best justice and the best religion somehow, and not altogether clearly how, came together to cause the execution of a man entirely innocent of every capital charge brought against him - and for the best of putative reasons. "Even the best we can do has no promise of freedom from sin."

So Joseph of Arimathea and the women disciples of Jesus (the men having gone into hiding) took Jesus' corpse and began to prepare it for burial in Joseph's own tomb. They did not finish the job because of the beginning of the Sabbath, a day on which they could do no work. They laid the body in the tomb, had it sealed, and left. The women agreed to return on Sunday morning to finish anointing Jesus' body, that being the first daylight hours after the end of the Sabbath at sundown Saturday.

The sun set and mercifully brought an end to execution day.

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