Thursday, April 5, 2012

The problem with Jesus

By Donald Sensing

Reposted from April 2010

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 (derived from Aramaic gulgaltā). There Roman soldiers nailed Jesus  to a cross, upon which he died a short time later.

But what exactly was the problem with Jesus? 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.

"Ecce homo" - behold the man! 
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. Not long after Jesus was born, a would-be revolutionary band of the city of Tzippori (Sepphoris) in Gallilee had tried to throw off Rome's yoke. This was before Pilate became prefect, but the Roman response was  crushing. Roman soldiers laid waste to the entire city, crucified several  hundred men and sold everyone else 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.

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 king of the Jews at the time was Herod  Antipas, whose Jewish lineage was suspect and who was a Roman vassal to boot.  Antipas was despised by the Jews. To have an inheritor of the line of David  (even if only adopted into the line), who had a huge following, make 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. The simplest narrative of events 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 emperor was Tiberius, who had pretty much checked out of affairs of state in 26 c.e., moving to isle of Capri and living la dolce vita. He had left state affairs to  Praetorian Prefects Lucius Aelius Sejanus and Quintus Naevius Sutorius Macro, neither of whom were loyal to Tiberius. By the time of Jesus' trial, Tiberius had taken power again after learning that Sejanus was actively plotting actual sedition and usurpation against him. He 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 actual, 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 throne of Antipas, a Roman vassal, whom we do not recognize as legitimate in the first place, but matters not, for, "We have no king but Caesar," Pilate. How about you?

It is inexcusable 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 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 actually talked to Jesus about, 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.

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 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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