Why was Jesus killed?

Tue, 04/03/2007 - 3:48pm
By: The Citizen


In the time of Jesus, religious preachers and self-proclaimed prophets were not summarily arrested and executed. Nor were nonviolent protesters.

Indeed, the high priests and Roman governors in Jerusalem would normally allow a protest, particularly a small-scale one, to run its course. However, the authorities were quick to dispose of leaders and movements that even appeared to threaten the Roman Empire.

The charges leveled against Jesus — that he was a threat to the stability of the nation, opposed paying Roman taxes and claimed to be the rightful King as Messiah of Israel — were purely political, not religious.

To the Romans, any one of these charges was enough to merit death by crucifixion. But the gravest charge, for which Jesus was ultimately crucified, was stated in the inscription on the cross: “The King of the Jews.”

The Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who alone had the authority to execute Jesus, focused on his political identity: “Are you the king of the Jews?” This seems to be primarily what mattered to Pilate, whose job it was to uphold the religious as well as the temporal power of the deified Caesars.

Jesus does not deny the allegation which, if true, will lead to his death. He answers: “You are right to say I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” To which Pilate responds: “What is the truth?”

The fact that Jesus was killed for claiming to be king of the Jews was not an afterthought pinned on the cross above his head. The Roman soldiers commissioned to prepare him for execution knew this was the issue. That is why they gave him the burlesque of coronation, clothing him in royal purple with a mock crown and scepter. Then they abased themselves and called out, “Hail, king of the Jews!”

Unfortunately, through the centuries, those claiming to be Jesus’ followers, from Christian emperors to popes to those who claimed the divine right of kings, have clothed themselves in his execution robes.

Now many evangelical Christians emulate it, along with attempts to gain political power. “All have dressed Jesus in borrowed political robes,” writes Gary Wills in “What Jesus Meant” (2006). “They will not listen to the gospels, where Jesus clearly says that his reign is not of this present order of things. The political power they claim to exercise in his name is a parody of his claims, like the mock robe and crown put on him by the Roman soldiers. These purported worshipers of Jesus are doing the work of Pontius Pilate.”

The main conclusion we can draw from Jesus’ execution is based on its method. Given that crucifixion was used mainly for slaves and political rebels, the Romans must have understood Jesus to be an insurrectionary of some sort.

From the Roman point of view, the cross was a way to terrorize the people. It was a public service announcement proclaiming: “Do not engage in political sedition as this person has, or your fate will be the same.”

And it was used quite liberally. In fact, crucifixion, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, numbered 500 a day in Jerusalem at one point, with totals reaching the thousands. Such was the political unrest during and after the time of Jesus’ death.

Crucifixion was the cruelest, most sadistic possible act of the cruel, sadistic Roman Empire. Death by crucifixion was a slow process, which could take as long as two or three days.

The victims were stripped naked, exposed to the scorching Mediterranean sun. The “science” of crucifixion, as James Tabor notes in The Jesus Dynasty (2006), “required the nails be affixed in a way to minimize bleeding, otherwise the victim would quickly pass out and die in a matter of minutes.” And the end that often awaited its victims was to become human carrion for dogs and birds of prey.

Any reflection on Jesus and his execution must take into account several factors. Jesus’ kingship and rule stand against such things as empires, controlling people, state violence and power politics. Jesus challenged the political and religious belief systems of his day. And worldly powers feared Jesus, not because he challenged them for control of thrones or government but because he undercut their claims of supremacy.

Jesus taught that God was love and that God preferred the poor and downtrodden over the powerful and rich. He said that what is valued in the kingdom of God is not material prosperity but poverty of spirit and mercy.

His principles, thus, undermined the establishment and the status quo, not only of his own time but ours as well. And he spoke truth to power in a time when doing so could — and often did — cost a person his life.

In terms of popular support, Jesus’ message didn’t work during his lifetime. Nor has it worked well since.

Jesus’ message of peace, gentleness and justice has always stood in opposition to the evils of nationalism and religion. Thus, those who attempt to truly follow Jesus and practice his teachings invite suffering, attack and death. In a fallen, corrupt world, the good politics of Jesus are always in opposition to the powers-to-be.

Humanly speaking, we simply cannot follow this man’s example. We are not good enough. “This journey to the cross we cannot comprehend,” writes Alan Storkey in “Jesus and Politics” (2005), “we are fools to pretend we can.”
[Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.]

login to post comments