Most likely in 30 CE, Jesus of Nazareth, we’re told, staged a potentially politically and religiously provocative entry into Jerusalem, accompanied by a band of zealous, loud-voiced followers. He followed that up with an outrageous, table toppling, money scattering ‘demo’ in the Temple, and upped the ante with daily disputes with the religious intelligentsia in which, to the amusement of the listening crowd, he regularly outsmarted his furious opponents.
All this was happening in the run up to the Passover Festival – a time when Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims from all over the Empire. The Passover celebrated the story of the Jews’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt, and gave even greater impetus to their desire for deliverance from domination by Rome. The city was a powder keg, and the last thing needed by the political and religious elite, was a popular preacher firing up the volatile mob. It’s no surprise that plans were made to silence Jesus, but two curious mysteries remain.
The first mystery is WHY, when the Roman governor had Jesus executed as a prospective ‘King of the Jews’, did he not also slaughter those who had been his followers? History shows this was the normal, merciless Roman response to any perceived threat of riot, rebellion or sedition – get the leader, get the followers, get it done! The second mystery is WHY, after engineering the public execution of this rabble-rousing preacher in Jerusalem, did the Jewish authorities allow his Galilean followers to relocate to that very city where, far from keeping a low profile, “every day they worshipped together at the Temple”? None of this seems to make obvious sense, so how might we explain it?
Many Jews, including Jesus, believed the end of the present world order was imminent, with God about to set up his kingdom on earth, and some of them saw this in political and military terms. If they rose in rebellion against the Roman occupiers, God would then step in and finish the job. Jesus, however, was not a militant revolutionary. The coming kingdom, in his view, would be set up by God alone, and his people’s preparation was not to be military. Jesus exhorted them to return to obedience to God, demonstrably loving him and one’s neighbour as oneself. That was what would lead to God taking action.
The Jewish and Roman authorities would have understood that neither Jesus, nor his unarmed followers, were a military threat. What was a threat, was a volatile mob in that powder keg city. What the authorities feared, was the pacifist message of Jesus being highjacked by hot-headed rebels against Rome. All hell would then be let loose, and neither the current Roman governor, nor his Jewish collaborators, might survive the bloody outcome.
A short, sharp action was called for, to nip any serious trouble in the bud – but once the Romans had got rid of Jesus, why risk further inflammation by slaughtering his unarmed followers? And with the Festival ending, and the crowds going home, the Jewish leaders’ fear of riots or rebellions could safely be laid to rest.
So it proved. Peace was maintained – for a time. But who would then have imagined that within a few hundred years, a religion, claiming that same Jesus as its founder, would first be recognised by, and eventually, for a time, more or less replace, the Roman Empire? Sometimes the truth is indeed stranger than fiction, but that’s another story.
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