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from jesus to christ - the first christians

Arrest and Execution

Jesus' tumultuous last days in Jerusalem and the actual historical evidence of the crucifixion.

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


Now why did he leave Galilee and head for Jerusalem?

Jesus apparently at some point makes the decision to leave his home territory and move to Jerusalem. Precisely why he did that is not clear. It would appear that he had some sense of mission and that's clearly what the gospels suggest. That he felt compelled to go to Jerusalem. More than that is not entirely clear from the historical perspective but it seems that Jerusalem, where the temple was located, perhaps on one of the Holy Days, one of the festivals was the attraction for him to go and participate....

The traditional story has Jesus going to Jerusalem at the time of the festival of Passover. Passover is one of the two most important Jewish Holy Days or festivals in the entire year. On the one hand, coming in the spring it celebrates harvest. On the other hand, it commemorates one of the most important historical events in the Jewish tradition. Namely the deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the story of Moses and the Exodus. So it is a celebration of Jewish identity centered in the Temple itself.

Now to go to Jerusalem at one of these pilgrim feasts, as they're sometimes called, where everyone is expected to show up at some point during their life, means to join a big crowd. This is one of the really important holidays of all Jewish life. Especially in the ancient times when the Temple was standing and the Temple was the centerpiece of the whole event. If you were a pilgrim coming to Jerusalem in these days you would walk through the streets of this magnificent city, many of which are crowded. Very much like a Roman city in certain places. Very much like an older city, a Greek or even Near Eastern city in other places. But as you approach the Temple mound you come up to this massive, monumental complex that we call the Temple and there are grand staircases up which one can go and get up to the top. From the southern end they're also tunnels much like the way one goes into a football stadium today, where you proceed with all the others up through the tunnel and you come out up on top of the platform in the outer precincts of the temple complex. Now here we could imagine all kinds of people milling about. It's Passover after all. It's a holy time and so they would have come for various reasons. Some just to see, some curiosity seekers, and some there for their own religious devotion, but the temple is going to be where almost everyone would go at some point in time.

Now how did the Roman Governor respond to the atmosphere here?

It may be the case that the Roman authorities became particularly antsy at times of these festivals when there was the potential for increased political insurrection and agitation. It may be just a function of the number of people there. The size of the crowds that made them nervous, but the authorities, going even back into Herod's day and certainly under the Roman governors, tended to keep a close eye on things like that. It is alleged by Josephus in fact that Herod and then the governors after him actually locked up the garments of the high priest and only gave them out on these holy days so that there was not the occasion for religious activities prompt popular unrest. And yet at Passover they clearly are going to be in all their regalia, and this is going to be a lot of pomp and circumstance. So it's probably the case that [on] any of these holy day celebrations, that the authorities are at least going to be on careful watch and the civic magistrates of Jerusalem themselves are certainly going to be concerned with this....

So what do the Romans do?

If the Romans were convinced that the mob scene might break out into open rebellion they might shut the whole thing down. They had done so in the past, and closing the Temple or keeping the people away certainly would not have been out of the question for them.

It's probably the case that the soldiers that were garrisoned in Jerusalem were kept close to the Temple. If not in the Temple proper. Now there is an outer court in the Temple called the Court of gentiles where anyone could go including Roman soldiers and it's very possible that there were the local police officials or the odd Roman soldier standing around. But in all probability most of the Roman soldiers would have been stationed in the nearby fortress called the Antonia which literally stands adjacent to the Temple complex and kind of looks over it. They could keep an eye on things there and of course everyone in the Temple knew they were there too.


What's the traditional account of what Jesus did?

According to the traditional story, Jesus came to the Temple during the Passover season, and going up into this mob scene that you can imagine up there, proceeded to do something quite odd. He started to take the tables of the money changers in the Temple. People who would have been selling animals for sacrifice, or doing money changing, as it were, in order for people to buy their proper contributions for the Temple... Jesus is portrayed as taking these money tables, turning them over, kicking the people about, driving them out, even in one case with a whip, and claiming that to buy and sell in the house of the Lord is a transgression against God.

What are the problems with [this traditional account]?

The difficulty with the story of Jesus and the money changers in the Temple is that the story is told in slightly different ways in different gospels. For example in Mark's gospel and in fact in Matthew, Mark and Luke, all three, this event occurs in the last week of Jesus' life and is clearly the event which brings him to the attention both of the Temple leadership and the Roman authorities. It is in effect what gets him killed. John's gospel, interestingly enough, though, puts the story of the cleansing of the Temple as the very first episode in Jesus' public career. More than two years earlier, and no mention is made of it near his death. So there are a few problems with the story itself, although it is one of the stories that appears in all the gospels, so something is going on there in terms of interest in what Jesus did at the Temple.

But let's think for a moment what Jesus might have been doing if we take the story seriously as told in the gospels. To cleanse the Temple of these money changers is an act of protest against something apparently, but what? Now there's no reason to say from a perspective of the way the Temple was run that there's anything wrong with the money changers in the Temple, of buying and selling things that are part of the religious activities of the Temple. In fact it was an absolutely necessary activity within the way the Temple was run. So whatever the protest represents it must be a protest against some sort of idea of what the Temple should be, that they represent as having gone awry. It may be the case that Jesus represents the same kind of criticism that the Phariseesthemselves would have brought against the Temple, that in fact the kind of piety that happens only once a year at Passover is something that ought to happen every day and every week in your private lives. In that sense, Jesus' criticism of the Temple sounds very much like the Pharisees wanting to bring piety home. Wanting to make it much more personal. Another possibility though is that Jesus sounds more like the Essenes who were really criticizing the whole way the Temple is run as having become too worldly. Too caught up in the money of the day, or maybe just too Roman, and if that's the case then his actions look much more like an act of political subversion.

These are like three completely different ways of reading the same event.

Jesus comes across differently depending on which way you look at the story....


Now what kind of evidence do we have for what really did happen?

What happened to Jesus after the Temple incident is a bit unclear. It appears he's actually arrested, perhaps by the Temple guard or perhaps by Roman soldiers themselves. He probably had a trial but whether it was an extensive courtroom hearing or just a quick and dirty justice before the tribunal of the governor is not clear as well. But I think we have to realize that the evidence that we have by the mode of execution, by virtue of the trial stories as told in the gospels and by virtue of what appears in the story of his actual death, suggest that it ultimately fell to Pilate and Pilate alone to make the decision on what would happen to this figure Jesus.

Is it likely or plausible that the Jewish authorities did hand him over to the Romans?

What the role of the Jewish authority is in the actual arrest and execution of Jesus is difficult to say. Clearly from the traditional stories in the gospels they have a heavy role, and it might very well be that the Temple leadership were concerned with the kind of unrest that Jesus might cause. My own feeling is that there's very little role by the Jewish authorities. Maybe the Temple leadership at most but there's probably no direct historical evidence for an actual trial before the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leadership and clearly the decision to execute on a capital crime was a Roman decision. Certainly it is the case that the idea of the masses of the Jewish people gathered around the Temple had some voice in the death of Jesus is not part of history but a legacy of some later tradition.


What do we know historically about crucifixion as a method of execution? How is it carried out? It's not just another myth?

No, crucifixion was something very, very real. There are too many ancient sources that talk about it. Josephus himself describes a number of crucifixions that took place in Judea at about this time. So we can be fairly confident [of the crucifixion] as a historical event because it was a very commonplace affair in those days and very gruesome. Now different medical historians and other archaeological kinds of research have given us several different ways of understanding the actual practice of crucifixion. In all probability the feet were nailed either directly through the ankles or through the heel bone to the lower post of the cross. The hands or the arms might be tied rather than nailed. It depends but it suggests really that crucifixion was a very slow and agonizing form of death. It's not from bleeding. It's not from the wounds themselves that the death occurs. It's rather a suffocation because one can't hold oneself up enough to breathe properly, and so over time really it's really the exposure to the elements and the gradual loss of breath that produces death. It's an agonizing death at that.

... [E]vidence of crucifixion in archaeological form has been rare until the discovery that was made in recent times of an actual bone from a coffin which was found to have a nail still stuck in it. This is apparently someone who actually did experience crucifixion. .... Now what apparently happened was the nail that had been used to put him on the cross by being placed through his heel bone had stuck against a knot or bent in some way and so they couldn't pull it out without really causing massive tearing of the tissue and so they left it in, and as a result we have one of those few pieces of evidence that show us what the practice was really like.

What's the significance of a sign that they hung up on the cross?

When we look at the stories of Jesus' crucifixion in the gospels the different phases, the different episodes that occur between the arrest and the garden of Gethsemane, the trial before the Sanhedrin, the trial before Pilate, the final kind of public scene where the decision is made to send Jesus to the cross. Of all of those episodes, most of them seem to be the product, really, of literary imagination, where people later on, at the time that the gospels are being written, are trying to fill in the gaps in the story, but the one thing that most scholars do agree on is a historical artifact that tells us something about what really happened to Jesus. ...[T]he plaque that was nailed to the cross which identified him as Jesus, King of the Jews. This piece of evidence suggests that he was executed by the Roman authorities on some charge of political insurrection. Now I don't for a moment think that Pilate would have been worried that Jesus could have challenged the power of the empire. That's not the point. The point is any challenge to Roman authority, any challenge to the peace of Rome would have been met with a swift and violent response.

And that's what happened?

And that seems to be what happened with Jesus... It's probably the case that the plaque that was nailed to the cross is one of the few clear pieces of historical evidence that we have. Precisely because it reflects a legitimate charge upon which the Romans would have called for execution and it stands out so starkly, and in fact it stands in some tension with some of the rest of the story, that it could only be supposed to have been left there because it reflects one of the central events that really happened. The plaque which names him as Jesus, the king of the Jews, suggests that the charge on which he was executed was one of political insurrection. A threat to the Pax Romana but he's also now a victim of the Pax Romana.

Allen D. Callahan:

Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School


[Why was Jesus killed?] The Roman answer is good enough for me. He was causing trouble. He constituted a security risk and he was dealt with the way the Romans always deal with security risks in the provinces. This was a matter of not even so much politics, as policy. This is how the Romans handled trouble-makers, even if they didn't intend to make trouble.

One of the questions that runs like a leitmotif in modern New Testament studies is whether Jesus was fomenting revolution, ...[whether] Jesus' self-concept had to do with being a revolutionary or being someone who was overturning the Roman establishment. For the moment anyway, I'm probably willing to leave that question unanswered. I think the Roman answer is the one that's important, and that is, whatever he was doing, it was considered dangerous enough that he'd be crucified for it. And, that's exactly what they did.


The Romans had a genius for brutality. They were good at building bridges and they were good at killing people, and they were better at it than anybody in the Mediterranean basin had ever seen before....

Crucifixion was considered such a humiliating form of punishment that if you were a Roman citizen, of course, you couldn't be crucified, no matter what the offense. It was usually the execution of choice... for slaves and people considered beneath the dignity of Roman citizenship. It was a form of public terrorism.... You would be punished by being hung out publicly, naked until you died. And this sent a very powerful message to everybody else in those quarters that if you do or even think about doing what this guy's accused of having done, you, too, can wind up this way and it was very effective; excruciating, perhaps the most excruciating form of capital punishment that we know.

Does the manner of Jesus' death effectively tell us who actually condemned him? I mean, sometimes people say the Jews killed Jesus. Is a crucifixion incompatible with that?

Absolutely.... It was a Roman job, there's no mistake about that. There has been some examination of the question of whether Jews... actually crucified people in any circumstances. There's some evidence that crucifixion did take place; members of the Pharisee party at one point were crucified, maybe a century and a half before Jesus. But that's disputed. It's a Roman form of execution and it was a public execution on a political charge.

Shaye I.D. Cohen:

Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University


What is the story about Jesus' final days?

The gospel stories about Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, the dramatic confrontation in the Temple, the celebration of Passover with his disciples and the rest, and crucifixion, of course, are very dramatic; we all know the ending when the story begins, and that sort of increases its melodramatic value or its drama or pathos. And no doubt for pious Christians the meaning or the significance ofthe story. For the historians this is one set of problems after another as we try to figure out exactly what happened or what might have happened and try to understand what happened.

And there are certainly no end to puzzles ... just to begin with a famous incident of Jesus confronting the money changers in the Temple, what does this mean? There have been two classic interpretations. One is that this is Jesus' symbolic overturning of the Temple itself, the rejection of the Temple, that is to say the rejection of Judaism... in favor of a new religion that he's about to introduce. Well, that's a wonderful Christian interpretation, of course, but it's entirely anachronistic and entirely inappropriate in the setting if we think about Jesus himself, as a Jew, as a Jewish teacher and a preacher and a man who lived and died in the social community of Judaism. It's much more likely, then, that he's not overturning in the sense of destroying the Temple, he is trying to purify the Temple. He is preparing the Temple for its new, improved, purified state that will come about shortly, in the end of days.... Passover, of course, is a festival of redemption. The time when God set the Israelites free from Egypt a millennia before, and a time when presumably God would yet set them free again. So this is all in anticipation of the great, great redemption of the end time. What we have then is Jesus making the Temple ready for its new role in the end time. He's purifying the Temple. It is then an act which is very much within the confines of Judaism, very much within the confines of the Jewish belief.

So it was not an act of political protest?

Was overturning the tables of the money changers a political act? Well, of course it's a political act. Everything is a political act. That is to say that somebody who is taking on the status quo, rejecting authority or rejecting the social norms, rejecting social values to some degree. Yes, of course, that's a political act. But by the same token it is a political act which needs to be understood in religious terms. Just to state the obvious, in antiquity, politics and religion cannot be distinguished. We think that these are separate categories because we are the products of the 18th century deistic philosophers who wrote our Constitution and who constructed our political society for us. But in antiquity nobody for a moment thought politics and religion were distinct. And of course, every political act is religious and every religious act is political.

John Dominic Crossan:

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University


Passover in the occupied Jewish homeland was a tinderbox situation because they were celebrating freedom from imperial oppression in Egypt, while they were under imperial oppression from Rome. So, a large number of Jews in a concentrated area would be a very dangerous situation. And we would have to presume at Passover, that there would have to be certain standing orders, let's say, between the Roman Prefect who was in charge and probably came down to Jerusalem for the feasts and the High Priest, who had to collaborate with the Roman Governor, for what to do if anyone causes a riot or incites a riot, or does anything out of order during Passover, especially Passover....

I would consider the incident in the Temple historical. But this is also very delicate because we're inclined to talk about the cleansing of the Temple and we often see it as Christianity judging Judaism. Try and imagine the Temple for what it was. It was both the House of God and the seat of collaboration. It was the High Priest, Caiaphas, who had to collaborate... with the Roman occupation. Now how would Jesus as a Galilean peasant, see the Temple? I think with ferocious ambiguity. On the one had, it was the seat of God and you would die to defend it from, say, a Roman Emperor like Caligula putting a statue in there. But what would you do if it was also the place where Caiaphas collaborated with the Romans? Was the Temple really the house of God anymore? What Jesus does is not cleanse the Temple. He symbolically destroys it....

And what happens following the incident in the Temple?

The most difficult thing for us after 2000 years is to bring our imagination down when we're looking at the passion of Jesus. Because we want to think the whole world was watching, or all of the Roman Empire was watching, or all of Jerusalem was watching. I take it for granted there were standing orders between Pilate and Caiaphas about how to handle, lower class especially, dissidents who cause problems at Passover. If it was an upper class person, a very important aristocrat, of course, they would be shipped off to Rome for judgment. That would be handled completely differently. What would happen to a peasant who caused trouble in the Temple and maybe endangered a riot at Passover? Standing orders, I would take it, crucifixion, as fast as possible. Hang him out as a warning. We're not going to have any riots at Passover. That's, I think, what happened to Jesus. What happened in the Temple caused his death. And I don't imagine any, for example as we find in John's gospel, dialogues between Jesus and Pilate.

Now, as Jesus hangs on the cross, can we say what was in his mind? Is there any significance in what he said while was hanging on the cross? What scraps of evidence are there that can tell us something about him and how he died?

When you say crucifixion, you say immediately two things. Lower class, because the Romans were not in the custom of crucifying upper class. That was too dangerous. People might get ideas when they saw that aristocrats died just like everyone else. So, lower class and subversion. It tells us that Jesus was perceived, at least by his executioners, as a lower class subversive. And that's very important. The details of the last words of Jesus, for example, we're totally in the realm of gospel, and not of history. Mark tells us that Jesus died being mocked and in agony and I think Mark is writing for the experience of people in the 70's who are dying like that and who need the consolation that Jesus had died that way before, feeling abandoned by God. When you come to John, you have a totally different scenario. Jesus dies when he's good and ready. His last words are to fulfill the scriptures. When that is done he gives up his spirit. There is no mockery, of course. There really is no agony. There almost is no pain. These are different gospel visions of the brute historical fact that Jesus would have died in agony on the cross....


Do we have any evidence or any indication of what the disciples must have thought, or what the Jesus movement made of the death of their leader? Did they think they had been following the wrong person?

If I could dare to put myself in the mind of those disciples on the day after [the crucifixion], I would think the primary thing in their mind is not, "Are the Romans going to come after us?" but, "Is God going to come after us? Does this mean a divine judgment on Jesus? That he has not spoken for God? That all of this about the Kingdom of God is all wrong... We're lost." I think what they have to do, first of all, is not try and find out information about what happened. That's not the first thing on their mind. Survival, not information, is what's on their mind.

The only place they can go, eventually, is into the Hebrew Scriptures, into their tradition, and find out, "Is it possible that the elect one, the Messiah, the righteous one, the Holy One,... is it possible that such a one could be oppressed, persecuted and executed?" They go into the Hebrew Scriptures, and of course, what they find is that it's almost like a job description of being God's righteous one, to be persecuted and even executed. And slowly then, the searching of the Scriptures convinces them that Jesus is still held, as he has always been, in the hands of God....

Paula Fredriksen:

William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University


It's unclear how he actually gets into trouble. He wouldn't have wandered into the crosshairs of the Priests, because compared to how the Pharisees are criticizing the Priests, what Jesus is doing is fairy minimal.... If he had been complaining about the Priests, or criticizing them, or criticizing the way the Temple was being run, this would just [be] business as usual; this is one of the aspects of being a Jew in second Temple Judaism. So it's really quite unclear how he would have gotten into trouble for religious reasons, which are the reasons the gospels are concerned to construct.

I think we have to settle firmly on the historical fact that he was crucified and therefore, killed by Rome.... I would prefer, rather than try to invent or import some kind of improbable religious reason for him getting into trouble and then trying to explain how a religious authority could somehow seduce or cajole Pilate into obliging them and executing Jesus, I prefer a simpler hypothesis. To think that he was turned over to Rome because there was a perceived danger, that Pilate, who has a terrible reputation for the way he behaved when he went up to Jerusalem for these pilgrimage holidays, was on the verge of some kind of muscular crowd control. People would get hurt or killed when Pilate felt so moved. And perhaps for this reason Jesus was turned over to Rome, and sure enough, Pilate, consistent with the record we know of him elsewhere, kills Jesus. But Pilate killed lots of people.

But, apparently not Jesus' followers. This was different.

That's right. Jesus' followers are not rounded up and killed. Only Jesus is killed. That's one of the few firm facts we have about it. What this means, at the very least, is that nobody perceived Jesus as the dangerous political leader of a revolutionary movement. If anybody had thought he was a leader of a revolutionary movement, then more than Jesus, probably, would have been killed....

I think there's some kind of cooperation between the chief priests and Pilate. The chief priests always had to cooperate with Rome because it's their job. They're mediating between the imperial government and the people. Particularly at Passover, which is a holiday that vibrates with this incredible historical memory of national creation and freedom. And there's Rome and the Roman soldiers standing among the colonnade of the Temple looking down at Jews celebrating this. So it's a politically and religiously electric holiday. And it's in this context that Jesus is turned over to Rome, lest there be, I think, some kind of popular activity. The gospels depict him as preaching about the Kingdom of God in the Temple courtyard in the days before Passover. That could be enough. That could be enough right there.

What was he saying?

I don't know what he was actually saying about the Kingdom of God, but if we can infer from the bits and pieces we have from the gospel stories, and also what we have in Josephus and other Jewish contemporary records of what other Jews are saying about the Kingdom of God, he might have been saying that it was on its way. That it was coming. That perhaps it was even coming that Passover. And we're seeing this now in American culture with certain kinds of fundamentalist forms of Christianity. If you really think the end of the world is at hand, that has a kind of liberating and frantic energy that goes along with it. It's not good for quiet crowds and social stability. And given the emotional and religious tenor of this holiday, anyway, to have somebody preaching that the Kingdom of God was really on its way, perhaps ... within that very holiday... [is]the equivalent of shouting, "Fire!" in a crowded theater. It would be enough to get somebody in trouble. Even if everybody knew perfectly well that he was not a revolutionary leader.


Let's go back to Pilate for a moment. Would Jesus have stood out as being special and unique in the eyes of Pilate?

Pilate was not a happy choice as Prefect of Judea. He had a reputation as a man who had sticky fingers. In a period where graft and corruption was the prerogative of a provincial official, he still had a high profile as somebody who was corrupt. He had a reputation for executing untried prisoners, for venality and theft.... He's not somebody you'd want to get on the wrong side of. Pilate occasioned riots in Jerusalem. He would get nervous when there were crowds of Jews. And of course he was legally responsible to be up in Jerusalem when it was the most crowded of all. He would leave this very nice, plush, seaside town in Caesarea, which was, you know, a nice pagan city. Plenty of pagan altars. All the stuff he wanted. And had to go up to Jerusalem where all these Jews were congregating and stay there for crowd control until the holiday was over. He was in a bad mood already by the time he got to town. And Passover would fray anybody's nerves.

[And] remember in this period, government depends on spies. It's particularly [important] if you're an occupying power. You need to have spies to know what's going on. People reporting came back, "Lookit, there's somebody who's really getting people excited and agitated talking about a Kingdom of God." Pilate doesn't care about theological niceties. Pilate doesn't even care about legal niceties. This is why ... ultimately, he's fired for his corruption and incompetence. Hearing that somebody is a trouble maker would be enough. Boom. He's dead. I think that's probably what happened with Jesus....

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
teachers' guide . viewers' guide . press reaction .  tapes, transcripts & events

published april 1998

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