In this series of blogs, I’m asking firstly why Jesus was crucified, and secondly why not his followers who, instead, were allowed to publicly proclaim him, in the very city in which he’d recently been arrested and crucified – the punishment reserved for insurrectionists against the Roman Empire.
The first Gospel, called Mark, appeared around forty years after Jesus’ execution. Its writer collected some oral, and perhaps written, accounts of sayings of, and stories about, Jesus. Most probably, these were originally unconnected, but he did some linking up and placing where he thought best in his literary framework. That took the shape of a simple ‘chronology’ that swiftly took Jesus from his native Galilee southwards, for one single visit to the city of Jerusalem. The Gospels called Matthew and Luke, borrowing much of Mark’s contents, also adopted this framework. The Gospel called John, however, written around thirty years later, rejected that framework and (which seems more plausible) has Jesus making several visits to Jerusalem over a period of up to three years.
On their single visit, the first three Gospels portray Jesus falling foul of the city’s religious leaders, following his ‘demo’ in the Temple, in which money-changers’ tables are overturned. This is followed by crowd-rousing preaching, in which he runs rings round these leaders’ attempts to pick holes in his teachings. Their patience runs out, and they consider how best to silence him. In an over-crowded, volatile city, that’s marking the Passover celebration of freedom from a foreign oppressor, they don’t want to lose control of events . To silence him, however, is problematical. Murdering him would risk popular recrimination. The ideal solution would be for the governor to execute him, which he alone had the authority to do.
What about Pontius Pilate then, who comes across in the Gospels as weak and wavering? Lacking any interest in intra-Jewish, religious squabbles, he’s said to find no fault in Jesus, but is pressured by the Jewish leaders to order his crucifixion. Looking for a get-out, he negotiates with a hostile crowd, but accepts their rejection of his offer to condemn another prisoner instead of Jesus. He gives in, publicly washes his hands from personal guilt, and allows Jesus to be led away to his death. This picture of Pilate, and this whole sequence of events, is at complete variance with what history records elsewhere concerning this man.
The Jewish historian Josephus records Pilate’s provocation, and total disregard for the Jewish people and their leaders, when he deliberately marched troops into Jerusalem complete with standards bearing Imperial images. Similarly, his appropriation of Temple funds for the building of an aqueduct gave rise to a predictable riot. On another occasion, having concealed ‘plain clothes’ soldiers in the midst of a protesting crowd, on his signal they pulled out clubs and beat people to death, while others were trampled underfoot in the ensuing panic. Philo of Alexandria characterises Pilate as a man of “inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition”, guilty of “venality, thefts, assaults, abusive behaviour, and frequent murders of untried prisoners”. That he would stoop to ‘negotiate’ with the Jewish leaders, and even listen, let alone give way, to a baying crowd is simply not credible.
Why, then, did Pilate crucify Jesus? My guess is that his small permanent garrison in Jerusalem, his ‘eyes and ears’, would have taken note of the repeated visits of a fanatic who preached about a coming “Kingdom”, with an implication that he himself would be its ‘King’. If that were ever to be taken seriously, it would count as sedition and, if a mob were fired up, threaten insurrection. Not to take appropriate action in such circumstances would be a dereliction of duty. As it happens, the Gospel of John says that, playing their own power game, the Jewish leaders told Pilate, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend”, and they would make sure Caesar was informed. This was their one card, and they played it well. They knew there was a risk here that he could not afford to take.
This explains why Pilate executed Jesus but, why were his followers not crucified along with him? …..