Why did the Romans execute Jesus?

“Pilate…probably regarded [Jesus] as a religious fanatic whose fanaticism had become so extreme that it posed a threat to law and order” (EP Sanders – Professor Oxford)

A quick reading of the Gospels might give the impression that Pontius Pilate was a decent harassed administrator, reluctantly pressured into executing Jesus.  Gospel critics, considering for example Luke 13:1, already questioned this picture of Pilate.  But we know a good deal more about Pilate form a variety of sources outside the New Testament.  It confirms what Gospel critics already suspected from internal evidence, that Pilate was really a very hard man who would unhesitatingly order the execute of a Galilean who seemed to him sufficiently troublesome.  The tragic myth of Pilate as a decent fellow pushed into a terrible mistake has to go.  It was evolved by way of reconciling Christianity with the Roman State, but it is not historical.  (Don Cupitt and Peter Armstrong – Cambridge and BBC)

… perhaps the most important aspect of which was to lighten and deflect the fundamental embarrassment over the Roman execution of Jesus as a subversive and anti-Roman agitator… Out of it proceeds the portrayal… of Roman officials and Herodian puppets.  Two of the most obvious of these, we have highlighted, were the patent fraudulence of portraying Pontius Pilate’s high regard for Jesus and “his wife” – naturally unnamed and in a dream no less – as recognising Jesus as “a Righteous Man”, the most revert concept in Judaism of the time… and secondly, the henpecked Herod … hesitating to execute John the Baptist, but rather, also, recognising John as a “Righteous Man”, or “Zaddik”, while the majority of Jews did not – yet being forced to execute John , because of the lascivious dance performed by a woman at his birthday party!  Almost any fair-minded person would immediately recognise such portrayals as dissimulation.  (Robert Eisenman – Professor California State, Oxford)

[re John the Baptist]  Herod had him put to death, though he was a good man, and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellow and piety toward God, and so doing to join in baptism…. When others too joined the crowd around him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his words, Herod became alarmed.  Eloquence that had so great an effect on people might lead to some form of sedition, for they looked as if they would be guided by John in everything they did.  Herod decided that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising.  (Josephus AJ 18.116-119)

There is no doubt in my mind that the persons responsible for the execution of Jesus were the Romans.  The Romans practised crucifixion.  While it was not unknown to the Jewish people it was not a form of Jewish execution.  (Eric M Meyers – Professor Duke, Oxford, Princeton)

Jesus was executed in a land under Roman military occupation and by the Roman authorities.  Only the romans were allowed to crucify and only the Romans had the authority to condemn a man to death.  Crucifixion was a punishment for those who threated the political status quo, not those accused of theological heresy.  Of course, in first-century Palestine, as today, theology is politics.  A charismatic leader who proclaimed a kingdom with God and not Caesar at its head was an immediate threat to the authorities.  And as with all occupations, there were local stooges who acted on behalf of the Romans.  But no one was in any doubt who was ultimately in charge.  The romans were responsible for the death of Christ.  All of which makes the story of Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the decision to execute a political / theological troublemaker entirely implausible . Brutal crowd suppression was Pilate’s speciality.  Governors of troublesome outposts of the Roman Empire were hard-nosed career politicians who would not flinched form taking a man’s life before breakfast.  … moreover, given that much of the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the Gospels was written after Roman legions had returned to crush the Jewish rebellion of AD 66, some have seen the desire to blame “the Jews” as whitewashing Roman responsibility so as not to antagonise Roman power… Christians have too often preferred an anti-Semitic lie to a disturbingly relevant truth:  Jesus was destroyed by the logic of empire.  (Giles Fraser – Church of England priest, Oxford)

From a purely historical perspective, the Romans treated Christ no worse than they treated huge numbers of people every day.  This isn’t to belittle the suffering the inflicted on one man, but merely give sit a context:  crucifying Jesus didn’t make him special, to the romans.  It wasn’t a sign of persecution or unique intolerance.  It wasn’t even because he was a dangerous political subversive who had to be degraded and slaughtered to discourage any others.  It was, simply, the commonplace treatment of those who were deemed guilty of crimes in the Roman world, and weren’t Roman citizens.  Being a foreigner or a slave in the Roman Empire could only end well if you kept your head down.  (Natalie Haynes)

“fully relevant to the case of Jesus, is [the first century Jewish historian] Josephus’ account of the execution of John the Baptist..John’s downfall was due to the powerful appeal of his preaching…his execution in secret was a drastic preventive measure against a potentially dangerous public figure, who dealt with religion today, but who tomorrow could become the leader of a revolution. In a similar way, Jesus, a persuasive preacher, sealed his fate by the affray he caused in the commercial quarter of the Temple by overturning the tables of the merchants and money-changers…. this was an act which the high priestly guardians of law and order would have been ill-advised to tolerate.  So..they handed him over to the cruel representative of a political system which, when faced with the threat of insurrection, often demonstrated outstanding brutality and savagery.”  (Geza Vermes – Professor Oxford)

John the Baptist killed by Herod probably for the reasons given by Josephus rather than those give in the gospels i.e. his popularity and wanting justice for the poor was cause for concern that an uprising might occur.  (Sean Freyne – Professor Trinity College Dublin, visiting Professor Harvard)

On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of[b] Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. (Mark 6:22-24)

“…several episodes recorded by Josephus of where eschatological prophets emerge and Pilate has no hesitation in eliminating them or in suppressing episodes of potential conflict or revolt within that territory”  (Harold Attridge – Professor Yale)

The Jewish historian Josephus tells us a number of stories about characters whose career could be crudely summarised as following:  some guy wakes up in the morning and he thinks he’s the Messiah or something or he’s a prophet and he gets people to follow him… he says we’re going to go out in the desert and we’re going to wait for God to do something for us.  So a whole bunch of people may go with him, maybe thousands go with him out to this deserted, unsecured place and they wait for what Josephus calls the tokens of their deliverance.  And the Romans send a vicious police action out there and kill everybody.  When that kind of police action is perpetrated against what we might consider harmless fanatics the Romans are really giving us a very good historical lesson in how domination works.  (Allen Callahan – Brown and Harvard)

Jesus’ activities eventually attracted the attention of the Jewish elite… who were alarmed by his popularity and lobbied the procurator Pontius Pilate to have him tried and executed by crucifixion as a common criminal in the 30s.  (Richard Miles – Sydney, Cambridge)

“..conflicting chronologies of the Passion in the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) and in John…In the synoptics the last supper is a Passover meal…Everything that follows – Jesus’s arrest, his trial and sentencing to death for blasphemy by the Jewish high court, his transfer to Pilate on the different charge of sedition, and the Roman proceedings leading to the crucifixion – occurs on the Passover festival. ..John, by contrast, antedates everything by 24 hours. The last supper is not a Passover dinner. There is no Jewish blasphemy trial; Jesus is simply interrogated by the former high priest Annas. ..Any historian familiar with Judaism must realise that the synoptic timetable is impossible: Jesus’s two trials and crucifixion could not have taken place on Passover day”. (Geza Vermes – Professor Oxford)

“[Jesus’ arrest]… as soon as we press the primary framework too closely, even the synoptic part of it divides over matters of importance.  Did the Jews meet by night and again by morning, or only in the morning?  Was Antipas involved or not?   … “Pilate realised” says Mark’s Gospel, “ that it was out of envy that the chief priest had delivered Jesus up.”  How did anyone know what Pilate realised?”  (Robin Lane Fox – Oxford)

Jesus’ death

“Each gospel, then, retells Jesus’ death as a way to emphasise the theological points the author wants to make:  For the Gospel of Mark , that it was necessary for God’s messiah to suffer and die in order to usher in the kingdom of god and the final end of all things.  The Gospel of Matthew argues that everything that happened was part of God’s plan, even when Judas acted out of that most human of faults – greed.  For the Gospel of Luke, that Jesus is depicted as utterly in control, even of Satan himself, who enters Judas in order to bring God’s plan to completion.  The Gospel of John goes furthest, portraying Jesus directing all the events, even his own betrayal”.  (Karen L. King and Elaine Pagels – Professor Princeton)

the last words of Jesus that appear in the Gospels… “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (from Matthew and Mark), but also “It is accomplished” (from John)… (.. from Luke): “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”  (Stephen Prothero – Professor Boston, previously Harvard)

“We cannot know how Jesus understood his end, his death.” (John Ashton – quoting Bultmann)

“Like the miraculous birth, the tradition of the “noble death” was well known in both Jewish and Gentile Greco-Roman contexts… Homeric imitations in the Gospels raise the inevitable question of the extent to which the Gospels report “what happened” and the extent to which they reflect what anyone familiar with Homeric models…presumed happened… … Along with classical templates, the Evangelists drew upon biblical precedents … to recount Jesus’ suffering and death.. Also influencing the Gospel writers, and , quite likely, Jesus himself, were Isaiah’s Suffering Servant songs”.  (Amy-Jill Levine – Professor Vanderbilt and Cambridge)

“Most Christians did not want to be enemies of the Roman Empire and they soon sought to play down the role of the Romans in the story.  So the Passion narratives shifted the blame on to the Jewish authorities and … Pontius Pilate… was portrayed as inquisitive and bewildered, cross-questioning the seditious prisoner before him as if Jesus were an equal and making every effort to get him off the hook…. Matthew shifted blame for Jesus’ death … to the Jewish crowed, who in his narrative roared out “His blood be on us, and on our children!”  … It would have been better for the moral health of Christianity if the blame had stayed with Pilate”.  (Diarmaid MacCulloch – Professor Oxford)

While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” [Matthew 27:19]

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” [Matthew 51-54]

John the Baptist’s death almost certainly affected the historical Jesus and may explain the string interest in his own death that dominated his ministry (and , to a large extent, explains the genesis of Chrsitnaity)… as a similarly outspoken and popular figure, the historical Jesus would have good cause to expect a similar fate to that of John and to speculate on its significance (see, for example Luke 13.31-33)… in both cases, only the charismatic leader was initially put to death and not any of his disciples.   (Justin Meggitt – Cambridge)

Why was Jesus killed by the Romans? Was he a dangerous subversive, executed because he declared himself to be the Son of God? Or was he silenced for another – far more disturbing – reason that has so far been overlooked? Most scholars believe that Jesus died on a cross because he was viewed as a messianic pretender who challenged Roman rule and had to be eliminated, whatever the cost. But Justin Meggitt suggests otherwise: that the rulers of Judaea did not perceive Jesus as being any threat at all. So why else would this ‘King of the Jews’ have been executed while his disciples were allowed to go free? Usual practice in the empire was to hunt down perceived ‘rebels’ in order to squash all sources of opposition. Yet Peter and the other apostles remained entirely at large to spread their gospel. All the evidence points to the fact that Jesus’ executioners thought him to be an inconsequential and deluded lunatic, to be mocked as they taunted other madmen of the day, and then put out of his misery. Rather than wanting to liquidate a threatening political agitator, the motives of the Romans were rather those of pragmatic – or gratuitously sadistic – policing. (From description of “The Madness of King Jesus” by Justin Meggitt to be published 2013)

Mark and the other synoptic evangelists represent Jesus’ words to the disciples, predicting his own death and resurrection.  Several times, according to Mark, he warns them in explicit detail of what will happen.  But when the time comes, they are taken utterly by surprise.  The explanation offered by most New Testament scholars is that the predictions ascribed to Jesus are vaticinia post eventum (the expression used by Strauss and Bultmann), that is to say, these are not really predictions made by Jesus before the events happened, but the interpretations placed on these events by the evangelists several decades after they had happened.  (John Macquarrie – Professor Oxford)

Little goes without question or discussion.  For example, for many historians, the key happening leading to Jesus’ condemnation was the so-called “cleansing of the Temple” (Mark 11.15-17) and parallels); but it can plausibly be held that, given the great size of the crowed thronging the vast Temple court at this time, it was so minor an incident that it would scarcely have been noticed -0 it was no more than a minor scuffle.  Similarly , the “triumphal entry” (Mark 11.1-10 and parallels), with its apparent political overtones, may be put forward as the vital trigger, helping to explain the “king of the Jews” placard put on Jesus’ cross; or else as (again) a minor event, or even as a fictional story created out of prophecy here seen as fulfilled.  And the so-called Jewish trial (Mark 14:53-65 and parallels) may be seen as having had a major or (as indeed in John) minor role in the process as a whole.  After all, the assembling of an officially constituted body late on Passover night is pretty implausible, and the unlikelihood of the emergence of details form a private meeting and of their reaching the hands of Jesus’ adherents casts doubt on the accuracy of the account,  only know in writings composed several decades later.  May the account of the “Jewish trial” not reflect Jewish-Christian relations at that later time?  … Pilate’s reluctance to condemn Jesus, so that the blame falls much more heavily on the Jewish authorities (and increasingly so as the Gospel tradition develops) is improbable, given the general situation and what is otherwise known of Pilate’s character.  Rather, it is likely to reflect the circumstances and biases of the later first century, when the Gospels were being written, with the church in controversy with Judaism, from which it was increasingly differentiated.  In reality, Pilate was surely the decisive agent, though the priestly aristocrats would not have been averse to the removal of a “trouble-maker”.  (Leslie Houlden – Professor Kings, Oxford)

“key events in Egyptian myth, such as the burial of the murdered god Osiris” (Geraldine Pinch – Oxford)

The picture of Jesus we have is based on religious canonical documents that, to a large extent, have been rewritten so that the family and those close to Jesus have been written out and a huge amount of anti-Semitism written in… [Jesus] is made to appear as if he doesn’t like his own people.  He says things like “A prophet is never accepted in his own house”, “who are my mother and brothers?”.  These are polemics – the Greco [i.e. Greek] idea to put your own ideas into the mouth of an important person to give them credibility.  Jesus is made to like Roman Centurions – and to praise them – and the centurions are presented as not wanting to execute Jesus, which is unrealistic and a complete invention.  Real Jewish sympathisers would never write those sorts of things.   [very slight paraphrasing in the second from last sentence]  (Robert Eisenman – Professor California State, Oxford)

He seems to have approached [his death] as a fulfilment of his mission, seeing his own suffering and rejection as somehow part of the salvation of Israel and expecting God to vindicate him.  (David F. Ford – Professor Cambridge)

[ Q ]  A document that does not exist but must be reconstructed from those places in Matthew and Luke where the same material appears but which is absent from Mark, namely Q.  although the existence of Q has been doubted as well as denied, most students accept Q as the hypothesis that accounts best for the phenomenon.  What makes Q distinctive and important is that it consisted almost entirely of Jesus’ teachings and had no story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection.  Moreover, since Q probably was compiled in Palestine circa 50 CE, about two decades before the oldest gospel (Mark) was written, Q puts one closer in time to Jesus than does any other source.  And since historians have long assumed that the reliability of a source decreases as the length of time between the event and the report increases, the significance Q for the study of Jesus is obvious.  (Leander E. Keck – Professor Yale) [italics added]

I bang my head against the wall when evangelicals turn Jesus into Cheesus…No PR agency in the world could sell the disturbing message of a broken man on the cross. That’s why we get Jesus-lite… After a while, if you say a word enough, over and over again, it loses its meaning. It even begins to sound a little different. Jesus morphs into Cheesus – the es getting steadily elongated. Those who talk about Cheesus do so with a creepy sort of chummyiness. This is what evangelicals call “a personal relationship”, by which they mean that Cheesus has become their boyfriend or best mate…. for the worst sort of Cheesus-loving evangelicals, the cross of Good Friday is actually celebrated as a moment of triumph. This is theologically illiterate. Next week, in the run up to Easter, Christianity goes into existential crisis. It fails. … The disciples run away, unable to cope with the impossible demands placed upon them. The hero they gave up everything to follow is exposed to public ridicule and handed over to Roman execution. And the broken man on the cross begins to fear that God is no longer present. The fact that this is not the end of the story does not take away from the fact that tragedy will always be folded into the experience of faith. Even the resurrected Jesus bears the scars of his suffering. .. The problem with PR Christianity is that it can easily transform Jesus into Cheesus, which is a form of Jesus-lite, a romantic infatuation, a Mills & Boon theology that makes you feel all warm inside. The Gospels, however, tell an altogether more disturbing story. And there is no PR agency in the world that could sell the message of a man who told his followers that they too would have to go the way of the cross. That’s the problem with Cheesus. He won’t really suffer and he doesn’t ever die.  (Giles Fraser – Church of England priest, Oxford)

The most plausible reconstruction – but reconstruction it is, – is that whilst to the pious Jewish mind, and to the Sanhedrin, the essential crime may well have been blasphemy, to the Roman legal mind and to the governor’s concilium it was as likely as not a charge of sedition, combined with the open threat of Jewish retaliation of Pilate refused to comply, that induced the condemnation.  (Professor G.W. Clarke – University of Western Australia)

[extract from interview] “In some Jesus
films, Caiaphas has bad teeth and looks villainous. You never understand why he
is doing what he is doing. He is just an evil man doing evil things. Not only
is that historically ridiculous but it’s dramatically poor. “I felt that
if we could make the Jewish High Priest a realistic and three-dimensional human
character that would be a great step forward. I am so pleased that we now
understand his motivations,” says Mark. “The key to that is
political. In the ancient world, there was no democracy so the biggest threat
to a leader like Caiaphas was that people might rise up and riot. Mob rule was
the only way people could depose a leader. So your overriding aim was to
prevent riots. In Mark’s Gospel there is a mention that they feared a riot. That
must have been a motivating factor. Caiaphas was a very good political leader
in that sense. He knew what needed to be done to keep a peaceful Jerusalem. And
he knew that a peaceful Jerusalem is somewhere where the Passover can be
carried out successfully.  (Mark Goodacre – Professor Duke University)

The Romans knew two types of threat. One was violent threat, and they
were dynamite with that. That’s what the legions were for. But a non-violent
threat is still a threat. Jesus is gathering people around the Kingdom of God.
That is a pointed term. He could have chosen other terms — “kinship,” “family,”
whatever. But he chose “kingdom.” Only Rome could appoint the King of the Jews
— and that king was Herod. So it all makes sense. Pilate would have agreed that
if someone is talking about the Kingdom of God, he must think he’s the king.
One empire, two kings — and that’s trouble!  (John Dominic Crossan – Professor Chicago)

But what I’m really doing is trusting the Romans. I trust empires to know their
enemies. I think that this is as true in Washington at the moment as anyplace
else. So I trust that the Romans took a look at early Christianity and Jesus
first of all and recognized that they were not a violent threat or they would
have rounded up all the Christian followers and crucified the bunch of them all
together. They recognized however that Jesus was a threat to Roman law and
order, an ideological threat, not a violent threat. Instead, Jesus was
crucified without his followers. That tells us that Pilate got it right. This
was a nonviolent threat to the system. So I am trusting that the Romans got it
right.  (John Dominic Crossan – Professor Chicago)

[“cleansing of the Temple”]  Jesus attached the
entire temple establishment… The Gospels cite the Pharisees as Jesus’
enemies, but this probably reflected the situation fifty years later when their
authors were writing.  The Pharisees were the more flexible and populist sect, and some of their teachings may have been similar to those of Jesus.  His real
enemies were the Temple aristocracy. The Herodians now challenged him about paying
taxes to Rome…. Yet [Jesus] did not call himself the Messiah, emphasising the
Shema, the basic Jewish prayer to the one God, and the love of his fellow men:
he was very much a Jew.  (Simon Sebag Montefiore – Professor University of Buckingham)

According to the Gospels, Barabbas was released.
The story sounds unlikely:  the Romans usually executed murderous rebels.
(Simon Sebag Montefiore – Professor University of Buckingham)

The traditional account of the sentencing… does not ring true.  The Gospels claim that the priests insisted they did not have the authority to pass death sentences, but it is far from clear that this is true.  The high priest, writes Josephus” will adjudicate in cases of dispute, punish those convicted of crime”.  The Gospels, written or amended
after the destruction of the Temple in 70, blamed the Jews and acquitted the
Romans, keen to show loyalty to the empire.  Yet the charges against Jesus, and the punishment itself, tell their own story:  this was a Roman operation.  (Simon Sebag Montefiore – Professor University of Buckingham)

The use of language of divine kingship involved at least an implicit threat to the current political and social order. When such preaching was coupled with a dramatic prophetic gesture, for example, the “cleansing” of the temple of Jerusalem (Mark 11), Roman authorities reacted forcefully. (Harold Attridge – Professor Yale)

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