The killing of Jesus
by Gerard Hall SM
It is safe to say that Jesus was not crucified because he taught love and forgiveness or because he set about debating legal points with the scribes of his day. Jesus was crucified because he was seen as a threat to the powers-that-be. His brand of non-violent resistance, his manner of stirring the people and empowering the poor, were correctly judged to be challenging the political power structures of his day.
None of this is to suggest that Jesus was a political rebel (a zealot), but it is to state that his mission of proclaiming the reign of God had profound political implications. Such implications became more evident in view of Jesus’ actions in ‘the cleansing of the temple’. Now the temple was not just a place. The temple was the symbol of the entire Jewish faith and its religious authority structure. Significantly, in two passion narratives the charge is brought against Jesus that he ‘threatened’ the temple. In effect, what is being stated is that his teachings and actions were threatening the very basis of Jewish life. Although the gospel-writers refute this claim, there is evidence to suggest that in both subtle and profound ways, Jesus certainly did challenge some of the central practices and institutions of Jewish life.
This radical challenge to Judaism could be described in terms of bringing about a new nearness of God to people which would have the effect of eliminating –at least significantly decreasing – the need for human mediators. Jesus’ mission very clearly implied the right of everyone to address God as ‘Father’. This meant that the Jewish leaders, especially the chief priests and Sadducees mentioned in the passion stories, had good reason to suspect that Jesus’ radicalized religion did threaten their own roles and status.
A couple of things can be said about the charges brought against Jesus by the Jewish sanhedrin. First, they imply that Jesus’ mission was not altogether a failure. Significant numbers of people, including some from the Jewish ruling classes, had come to a point of accepting that Jesus was indeed a true prophet, perhaps even the Messiah for whom Israel had been waiting. Second, this achievement was a very real threat to the status of lawful authority. If Jesus was seen as ‘Christ’ and ‘Lord’ to some, this very fact threatened the familiar lordship of others, notably the chief priests and scribes. Consequently, Jesus was a problem to the Jewish hierarchy from both religious and political perspectives.
However, none of this explains the involvement of Pilate and the Roman authorities. Despite the trumped-up charge of blasphemy that is brought against Jesus, it is important to recognize that he was sentenced to death by the Romans on the charge of political treason: “He claimed to be King of the Jews.” This messianic title had very clear political implications. Luke’s gospel expands on this charge: “We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king” (Luke 23:1). The point here is that, to the Roman occupiers of Israel, Jesus could well have been perceived as a would-be revolutionary. At the very least, Pilate and the Roman authorities had good reasons to put a stop to the Jesus-movement on the basis of its subversive possibilities.
Although there are many unknowns with regard to the events surrounding Jesus’ death, we can surmise that there was a deal struck between the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. Both had a stake in eliminating Jesus’ brand of religion: the Jewish leaders had power and status to protect; the Romans were more concerned with law and order….
The crucifixion and death of Jesus should always be seen in context of his life and ministry. Although Jesus was not concerned with establishing a political kingdom, his teachings on God’s reign were deeply challenging of traditional Jewish institutions and practices. Jesus took a dangerous path: he attacked power and wealth; he overturned social attitudes that oppressed ‘unclean’ or ‘unworthy’ people; he taught the need for prayer and self-sacrificing service; he called people to freedom and empowerment in the face of injustice; he named the religious elite a ‘breed of vipers’’ for its manner of sponging off the poor and the needy. In other words, Jesus made enemies among the Jewish leaders and their Roman overlords. These wealthy and powerful elite came to be threatened to the point that they needed to do away with him.
From Jesus the Christ (2005)