In this series of blogs, I’ve been 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.
Jesus was, arguably, the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. He was preaching a message about the imminent arrival of an Earthly ‘Kingdom of God’, centred on Jerusalem where God was thought to be uniquely present in its Temple’s innermost “holy of holies”. That message, from the lips of Jesus, would have invited the implication, possibly either publicly stated or privately shared with his closest followers, that Jesus himself would be its appointed ‘king’, as God’s representative on Earth.
That message, combined as it was with an expectation that the current Temple, enlarged and renovated by the religious ‘half-breed’ King Herod, would be destroyed and replaced by a new Temple built by God himself, would have been anathema to its priestly leaders. The Temple was their chief source of status, power and wealth. They’d have loved to have silenced that infuriating mouth. Pontius Pilate, however, would normally have had no interest whatsoever in Jewish internal religious squabbles. Like another governor, Gallio, he’d have said, “If you were charging this man with a crime or some other wrong, I would have to listen to you. But since this concerns only words, names and your own law, you will have to take care of it. I refuse to judge such matters.” (Acts 18:14-15)
It’s likely that Pilate’s ‘eyes and ears’, his small permanent garrison in Jerusalem, would’ve ‘kept a file’ on the at least four visits to the city from a ‘fanatical preacher’ from Galilee, with an ‘end of the world’ message, about the Kingdom of his God. If so, it would have been noted that he did not advocate anticipating, or bulldozing, his God by ‘lighting the blue touch’ paper himself, and that although he had followers from Galilee, they were illiterate fishermen and peasants who carried no weapons, and made no militant threats. To Pilate, that would have been fantastical, religious hot air, not worthy of serious interest or particular notice.
What was different this time, was that Jerusalem was seemingly in a particularly heightened and volatile state, so that the already familiar message of Jesus was stirring the crowds in a new and concerning way. The danger was that, despite Jesus’ non-militance, others of a different disposition might well jump on a promising band wagon, and turn things in a very different, provocative, seditious and peace-threatening direction. If so, it wouldn’t have been Jesus himself who was a threat to the governor, but opportunistic ‘freedom fighters’ who might light explosive fires of rebellion against the governor, the Emperor, and the rule of Rome.
It’s not the later, unforgivable, Christian anti-semitic story that it was what the Gospel of John calls “the Jews”, who pressurised an unwilling Pilate to crucify Jesus, that’s credible. Pilate would have taken that decision for his own reasons alone. Knowing, however, that Jesus was not, in himself, the dangerous leader of a gang of ‘gun-happy’, gung-ho militants, there was no need to risk any unnecessary fuel to a potential fire, by rounding up as many followers of Jesus as possible and organising a mass crucifixion. The horrific and humiliating execution of Jesus himself, with a claim of Jewish ‘kingship’ pinned to his cross, would be deemed sufficient warning to any would-be rebels to think again. And so it proved.
Jesus, I’m suggesting, was the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, but his followers were left alone. Once the over-crowded, volatile city had emptied with the end of the Passover celebration, they were free to proclaim a religious message about a ‘resurrection’ that was just a piece of incredible nonsense, not only to the governor, but also to most of Jerusalem’s Jewish citizens. The Jesus movement, of course, with the savvy, determined assistance of its Apostle Paul, further evolved its message in such a way that Jewish resistance was eventually vastly outweighed by Gentile acceptance, and the rest is history (depending on how that is defined, interpreted and understood).
That, I suggest, is why Jesus, but not his followers, was crucified. Other, theological, reasons have since been adduced. Each must make up his or her own mind.