Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why crucify Jesus?

As Good Friday and Easter approach, Christians across the globe come to re-examine the events of Jesus's last week in Jerusalem, referred to nowadays as Holy Week or Passion Week. The week began in triumph for Jesus as he entered the city being greeted as a nationalistic hero by some of the people who turned out to welcome him by laying their cloaks upon the road in his path, waving palm fronds and calling out praises.

Yet before the week was out, Jesus had been brutally beaten almost to death by the Romans, then driven to a place just outside the city called The Skull, or in Greek, Golgotha. There Roman soldiers nailed Jesus to a cross, upon which he died a short time later.

"Three Crosses" by Rembrandt
But what exactly was Jesus's capital offense? Crucifixion was used by the Romans only for that worst of all possible crimes: sedition or active resistance against the Roman imperium -- mutiny, in other words. Mutiny is always a cooperative effort. One person cannot commit mutiny, the crime definitionally involves conspiracy. Under Roman law, the only Roman citizens who could be crucified were mutinous or treasonous soldiers.

Absent conviction of a crime against the rule of Caesar, Jesus might have been executed, but not by crucifixion. The Romans made sure to carry out crucifixions in very public, well-traveled places where the intense suffering of the the victim would serve as a warning to others not to get any bright ideas. Those convicted of capital offenses considered less serious than sedition died a quicker and more private death by ordinary hanging or by beheading.

That Jesus was crucified rather than simply killed proves that the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, found him guilty of an offense against Rome itself. But what?

There are no notes from the trial of Jesus before Pilate. The accounts of the Gospels were written down many years later, decades, in fact. I read them not as verbatim accounts of the procedures but as dramatic accounts to tell the story of Jesus's death and how it came to occur.

But these the accounts of Jesus's arrest, hearings, trial and execution are not mainly theological explorations, either. The Gospel's writers seem to have possessed historical nuggets of the most important events and then tried to fill in some gaps by integrating what several threads of traditions said. Thus, we can understand that the Gospels' detailed conversations between Jesus and Pilate are not so much transcripts of what was said as dialog that is intended to show how and why one event moved to another.

Some historical facts are not disputed. The Sunday before Passover, probably between 30-33 c.e., Jesus and his disciples arrived in Jerusalem. The crowd that greeted them joyfully soon dissipated. Jerusalem would have been packed with Jewish pilgrims from Judea and across the Mediterranean world, come to the city to celebrate passover and make sacrifices at the Temple. Having been under Roman (hence pagan) occupation for many decades, and the pagan Greeks before that, the Jews' nationalistic fervor ran high during the holy season, so high, in fact, that Pilate abandoned his government's center in Caesarea, about 75 miles northwestward, and came to Jerusalem along with a couple of thousand soldiers. Whether Jerusalem was actually a tinderbox looking for a fuze, who knows today, but Pilate certainly thought so then.

Pilate was a very violent ruler. He had little compunction about sentencing people to death. Many hundreds of Jews, if not more, had already died by his command, some put to the sword, others nailed to a cross. The first-century Jewish historian Philo wrote that Pilate was not much worried about niceties of the law such as a proper trial for the accused. Pilate was known to be very suspicious of crowds, having already loosed his soldiers against at least two large crowds of Jews, one instance killing a large number. The Gospels record without commentary a time when Pilate sent his cavalry, swords swinging, into a group (of unspecified size) of men gathered to make religious sacrifices, killing the lot.

That Pilate was eventually fired by his direct boss, the governor of Syria, for being too violent speaks volumes, since Roman rule anywhere was lethally unforgiving of resistance. Pilate was sent back to Rome where he disappears from credible historical accounts.

The level of collusion between the Jewish high council (the Sanhedrin) and Pilate is unclear. It was mediated by the high priest, Caiaphas, in any event. All four Gospels present Jesus as being hauled before the Caiaphas - at his house, not at the Temple - and three say that there were other Jewish leaders present; Luke calls them "the elders of the people, both the chief priests and teachers of the law." Whomever they were, whether they were the Sanhedrin properly convened or not (and I think not), they are only presented as an echo board for Caiaphas.

What did Caiaphas have against Jesus? The synoptic Gospels indicate that Caiaphas's principal charge against Jesus was blasphemy, of which Jesus was undeniably guilty based on the facts as they were at the time, since the only proof of his divinity that Jesus could offer was his later resurrection from the dead. Mark records that early in his ministry, Jesus was accused of being in league with the devil, for which his miracle working was proof. This was a charge tantamount to sorcery, mentioned in the Jewish Scriptures only to denounce it (2 Chron. 33:6 and Nahum 3:4).

Matthew 26 records that after he was arrested and was brought before Caiaphas,
Then the high priest said to him, "I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God." 64 Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven." 65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. 66 What is your verdict?" They answered, "He deserves death."
I think the Gospel of John's explanation, which differs from the others', gives important insights to the dynamics of Caiaphas's relationship with Pilate, showing that the high priest was primarily concerned with preserving the lives of the people. John presents a more nuanced case of Caiaphas against Jesus that makes Caiaphas more concerned with politics with Pilate than internal affairs of religion. Chapter 11 records that Caiaphas was deeply fearful of Pilate's propensity to violence (for excellent reasons, as we have seen). The chapter also says that Caiaphas was willing to plot Jesus's death in order to prevent Pilate from slaughtering the crowds who followed Jesus and then turning his soldiers loose to ravage the country itself. There was Roman precedent for this. A few years after after Jesus was born, a would-be revolutionary named Judas the Galilean led a rebellion against Rome centered in the city of Tzippori (Sepphoris) in Galilee. This was before Pilate became prefect, but the Roman response was crushing. According to Tacitus, the Roman Syrian governor sent two legions who laid waste to the entire city, crucified up to 2,000 men and sold the rebels' families into slavery. The shock of this savagery would have been vivid in Caiaphas's mind. It was the sort of thing, or worse, that he reasonably feared Pilate would render to Judea if Jesus continued unchecked.

(Modern historians dispute Tacitus's account. They agree that the Romans killed or executed all the rebels but not that Sepphoris was burned, since modern archaeology finds no evidence of it. Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, mounted a major rebuilding project to recover from the damage the Romans did inflict. As the result, the city became larger and wealthier than ever.)

The crowds Jesus drew were particularly worrisome because they signified that Jesus was gaining a growing following. What if, with the masses supporting him, Jesus attempted to claim the throne of David, to which he was by descent from David entitled? The last king of the Jews had been Herod the Great, who had died in 4 BC. He was never accepted by the Judeans as a proper king by lineage because there was question of whether he actually was Jewish at all. When he died, the Romans did not name a successor, instead dividing Judea and territories east of the Jordan river among his three sons. Herod Archelaus was the main ruler, of Judea proper, and Herod Antipas was awarded Galilee and Peraea. Jesus, though, could have claimed proper inheritance of a unified throne since he was of the line of David (even if only adopted into the line). And Jesus had a large following. A power play for the throne could have only bloody results.

That Jesus had said and done nothing to demonstrate such intention would have been of no comfort to Caiaphas; as we say nowadays, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." What insurrectionist or revolutionary announces his goals before the optimum time? Jesus knew that such suspicions were harbored against him. In Mark 14, when Jesus is arrested, he demands directly, "Am I leading a rebellion that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?"

Caiaphas certainly knew that Pilate was deeply suspicious of crowds and had already dealt bloodily with more than one. To both the Jewish leaders and the Romans, a Jew with messianic intentions was foremost a political figure and in the minds of many Jews (and certainly Pilate), a potential military leader as well.

On Thursday evening of what would become known as Holy Week, Jesus was arrested by Temple police in Gethsemane, just outside Jerusalem. His disciples, who were with him, fled, leaving Jesus isolated. Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, traitorously brought the authorities to Jesus to apprehend him.

The simplest narrative of events from then is John's. After being arrested, Jesus was taken to Annas, Caiaphas's father in law. Whereas in the synoptic gospels Jesus appears before a council of some kind and is found guilty of blasphemy at a drumhead court, in John no such council is present nor is there any sort of trial. Jesus, remaining bound, speaks only to Caiaphas, who instead of pronouncing him guilty of some crime, "questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching." Jesus doesn't play along. An official present struck him on the face for responding insolently to the high priest.

Caiaphas quickly sent Jesus to Pilate. John relates a long dialog between Jesus and Pilate after Jesus's Jewish captors charge Jesus with nothing more specific than that he was a criminal. Talking to Pilate, Jesus admits that he is a king, although he says, "my kingdom is not of this world." Pilate seems to seize on this confession (of sorts) as a challenge to Rome, but nothing comes of it. Insisting that he finds nothing about Jesus justifying execution, he orders Jesus flogged. Finally, Pilate caves and orders the crucifixion.

For someone whom Caiaphas feared would decimate the whole country because of Jesus, Pilate seems awfully peaceable when he had the chance to get rid of Jesus. He had to be cajoled, even threatened, into it. In John, the Jews present tell Pilate that to release Jesus would be the same as opposing Caesar. Now Pilate is the one being accused of incipient treason!

But Pilate might have been trying all along to shift the blame for Jesus's execution from himself onto the Jewish leadership. It was Passover week, remember, when passions ran high. Jesus still had thousands of devotees who were unaware that he had been arrested overnight. Might they riot in protest? It was a real danger,as Matthew explicitly records the chief priests realized; it was the reason they decided not to snatch Jesus during the daytime. If a riot there might be, Pilate might have thought, best to preemptively divert its rage away from the Romans and onto Caiaphas and company. Pilate would not be able to sit it out, but reporting to Rome that the people were rebelling against their own religious authorities, not Caesar, was infinitely better than the other way round.

But while Pilate was trying to play Caiaphas, the high priest, knowing well Jesus's popularity among the masses (as well as his allies among some members of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus, for example) may well have been trying to set up Pilate to take the heat for him, also. Both men may have wanted to put the monkey on the other's back. This would help explain why Caiaphas gave Jesus such a cursory hearing before trundling him over to Pilate and the resistance to executing Jesus that Pilate gave right back to Caiaphas.

Caiaphas finally played his trump card. The Roman Caesar was Tiberius, who had checked out of affairs of state in 26 c.e., moving to isle of Capri and living a life of debauchery. He had left state affairs to  Praetorian Prefects Lucius Aelius Sejanus and Quintus Naevius Sutorius Macro, neither of whom stayed loyal to Tiberius.

By the time of Jesus' trial, Tiberius had returned to Rome after learning that Sejanus was actively plotting actual sedition and usurpation against him. Tiberius had Sejanus executed and began executing Sejanus' partners and political appointees by the dozens. Pilate owed his office to Sejanus but escaped the purge probably because his appointment was made in the very earliest days of Sejanus' rule, well before Sejanus began plotting against Tiberius.

Even so, Pilate must have known that his own political, and perhaps physical survival depended on demonstrated devotion to Tiberius. This was Pilate's political Achilles' Heel and it was there that Caiaphas aimed a nearly-explicit threat: if you free Jesus we will report to Rome that you failed to defend Caesar against an insurrectionist, a pretender to the still-vacant throne of Herod the Great, who was a Roman vassal we did not recognize as legitimate in the first place, but matters not, for, "We have no king but Caesar," Pilate. How about you?

It is a grievous error to blame "the Jews" categorically for Jesus's death, but there is no way to get around Caiaphas's deep involvement. As for Pilate, his intelligence sources would have kept him informed of Jesus for quite awhile. Pilate would not have been caught flat-footed when Jesus appeared before him early Friday morning. The Gospels describe no prior collusion between Caiaphas and Pilate concerning Jesus, but I have to think that they may have already outlined the kabuki dance that began when Jesus appeared before Pilate, who was undoubtedly frustrated that his interrogation of Jesus elicited no actionable confession. Not being given the open-and-shut case that he probably presumed he would have, Pilate, over Caiaphas's protest, ordered a sign affixed to Jesus's cross identifying him as "King of the Jews," a sign probably intended to implicate Caiaphas directly in Jesus's death, for whom else could have made such a charge?

Despite their differences, both Caiaphas and Pilate came to see that executing Jesus was win-win for them. By giving up Jesus to Pilate, Caiaphas would prevent the Jesus movement from getting out of hand before it was too late to prevent the unspeakable horror of Pilate's superior in Syria from sending a legion or two to teach Judea to stop raising up such troublesome sons. When Caiaphas conversed with Jesus at his house, he may well have been trying to cut a deal with Jesus that would preserve Jesus's life at the price of Jesus agreeing to stop working all those miracles and raising such a following - in other words, to live the ordinary life of an ordinary man, get married, settle down and play nice. It is almost impossible to believe that turning Jesus over the Pilate to be killed would be an easy decision for any high priest, this one included. Whatever Caiaphas  talked to Jesus about (if he actually talked with him at all), Jesus certainly swatted the approach away with finality. Faced with such intransigence, Caiaphas saw no recourse but to hand Jesus over to Pilate and make sure that Pilate never gave him back.

As for Pilate, his win would be to stop the Jesus movement cold by the very simple, effective expedient of killing Jesus. After all, he could not continue to send taxes and goods to Rome by destroying the country that produced them. And his loyalty to the vengeful Tiberius would not be challenged.

Jesus, it seems, had become too threatening to be allowed to live. Both Caiaphas and Pilate had the motive and the opportunity that week to stop him but only Pilate had the means to stop him permanently. There was a meeting of mind between Caiaphas and Pilate, and Jesus got caught in the middle. But here's the kicker: Jesus cooperated with what they had planned for him because he understood that his own fate was inextricably linked to the collusion between them. That Jesus could have effectively defended himself seems of little doubt; there are many clues in the Gospels of what he might have said. But instead, he let himself be found guilty by default. And so he carried a cross to Golgotha and the world has never been the same.

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